- As chairman of the National Museum’s board of governors, he will be talking about the National Art Gallery and the need for Kenya to finally establish one of our own.
- A national art gallery would serve as a repository for the arts.
- It would also play a central role in conserving some of Kenya’s finest artists’ works which now reside overseas, everywhere from Russia, Italy, and the British Museum to multiple museums in US and Europe.
When Tony Wainaina speaks to friends of Kenya Museum Society tomorrow afternoon, one of Kenya’s top financial consultants won’t be focused so much on finances as on the future of Kenyan culture.
As chairman of the National Museum’s board of governors, he will be talking about the National Art Gallery and the need for Kenya to finally establish one of our own.
“It’s been [more than] a fifty-year journey since the need for a national art gallery was raised, but still it hasn’t happened,” says the man who is currently spearheading a struggle with the government that began as early as 1966 when Kenya’s second vice president Joseph Murumbi proposed such an institution in Parliament.
“I’ll be speaking about the rationale for having a national art gallery comparable to the National Gallery in London and the Smithsonian in Washington, DC,” says Wainaina.
He might have referred to ones in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Nigeria as well.
One point he says the government has yet to understand is that Kenya’s creative economy is growing fast.
And while it may not yet be equivalent to that of the US, India or even Nigeria, the revenues from the arts industries in all those countries are exceeding many of the traditional revenue spinners today.
Just look at Hollywood, Nollywood, and Bollywood, all of which are reaping millions from the arts.
“If Kenyan politicians understood the economic value of the arts, they might stop pushing cultural concerns to the bottom of their budgetary priorities,” he adds.
But a man like Murumbi was equally concerned about the development of Kenya’s cultural identity.
A national art gallery would serve as a repository for the arts. It would also play a central role in conserving some of Kenya’s finest artists’ works which now reside overseas, everywhere from Russia, Italy, and the British Museum to multiple museums in US and Europe.
Since the sixties, the visual arts scene has grown by leaps and bounds, starting with Kenya’s first African-owned art gallery, Paa ya Paa in 1965.
Other commercial galleries also have been active since the sixties, including Gallery Watatu, Studio 68, and the New Stanley Art Gallery.
Foreign cultural institutions have also played a role in promoting Kenyan visual culture, starting with Goethe Institute followed by the French, British, Italian, and American. Yet none of them could fulfill the role of a national art gallery.
According to artists like Etale Sukuro and Murumbi himself, the dream of a national art gallery nearly happened when the government bought the building that is now the National Archive in the late 70s.
At the time, it was bought specifically to establish the national art gallery. But by mysterious means, the plan was waylaid at the last minute, and artists’ hopes were dashed yet again.
Today, the National Museum just opened a visual art exhibition entitled ‘Kesho Kutwa’ and co-curated by Wainaina with curator Lydia Galava.
“We called the show ‘kutwa’ [day after tomorrow] because the artists, like everyone else, has had to cope with Covid and the challenges associated with it. So the changes we want to see won’t happen tomorrow. But we are hopeful for the day after,” he adds.
The artists selected to be in the exhibition are five of Wainaina’s favorites. They include Peterson Kamwathi, Peter Ngugi, Dennis Muraguri, Beatrice Wanjiku, and Michael Wafula.
All are busy professional artists, meaning they are working creatively on a fulltime basis and earning a good livelihood from their art in the process.
In contrast to the stereotypic view that ‘all artists are impoverished’, and therefore discourage your child from becoming one, virtually all of them have been able to sell their work for many hundreds, if not a million shillings per piece.
All five are painters, yet Muraguri combines printmaking with painting. Meanwhile, Ngugi, Kamwathi, and Muraguri are also appreciated for their sculptures.
So versatility is one of the qualities they all share. Nearly all of them have also been involved in mentoring up-and-coming artists. But ultimately, it’s the quality of the artwork and the statement it makes that has given the greatest appeal to their art.
Their work compliments a smaller show next door in the Creativity Gallery by John Kariuki and Jimmy Githeka. It also stands adjacent to another group exhibition, ‘Dream of a Renaissance’ which also supports the vision of a National Art Gallery.