- While 2021 was a tough year for many Kenyan visual artists, especially those hopeful that the Covid-19 pandemic would end by last year’s end, there were trends and highlights that made this past year memorable.
While 2021 was a tough year for many Kenyan visual artists, especially those hopeful that the Covid-19 pandemic would end by last year’s end, there were trends and highlights that made this past year memorable.
One was the Art Auction East Africa which earned Sh23 million in a few short hours, illustrating how our Creative Economy has the capacity to strengthen the Kenya economy as a whole.
Another was the series of annual public art shows that many artists look forward to as consistent opportunities to show and sell their artwork. Those shows included the KMS Affordable Art Fair, Manjano, and FOTA’s ISK art exhibition.
And as for trends, this was a year of consolidation and cooperation among the artists. The best evidence of this was the creation of the Association of Visual Artists and Collectives (AVAC), founded by several artists and lawyers to protect the rights of creatives and professionalise the work of visual artists.
The formation of AVAC is also a recognition that Kenyan artists are organising themselves into viable groups. We already had Kuona Artists Collective, Brush tu Artists Collective, and Wajukuu as well as Warembo Wasanii, BSQ, and Art Orodha.
And this year, the opening of the Hive Studio at Karen Village and the relocation of Dust Depo as an Annex also at the Village reflect a trend of more artists working together.
Meanwhile, 2021 was also the year when the visual arts seriously went virtual, with artists increasingly showing and selling their art online, mainly on Facebook and Instagram.
It happened with the annual Friends of the Arts (FOTA) exhibition at ISK, with Nairobi National Museum’s Sujaa Exhibition of Kenyan heroes, and with GravitArt Gallery where the works of veteran Sudanese artist Rashid Diab were displayed as an online 3D gallery.
A number of exhibitions also took place in hybrid form. This was true with shows presented by One-Off, Circle Art, and Red Hill Galleries. It also happened at Art Auction East Africa where the blend of online, call-in, and live bidding made for a lively night of art sales, including one painting by Kenya’s Ehoodi Kichapi selling for over Sh1 million.
This was a big year for graffiti artists who got around to many parts of Nairobi. From Kayole, Kibera, and Kilimani to Karen, Kitisuru, and Mathare, many young artists are joining veteran graffiti artists like Swift9, Smokey, and BSQ to paint the town beautiful.
One of the high points of the year was when TICAH organised a group of young artists to enhance the beauty of the CBD by painting graffiti everywhere from Latema Road to the front yard of the Hilton Hotel.
Young graffiti artists are part of a larger trend identified by Lydia Galavu of Kenya National Museums. “We’ve seen many young, independent artists at the Museum this year. Unaffiliated with any gallery or collective, they are eager to find their own way, and they have lots of energy,” says Lydia who is currently showing an exhibition entitled ‘Sujaa’ created by youth artists who researched and painted portraits of heroes from every county.
The pandemic has had a toxic effect on businesses and also artists, some of whom have had to struggle with depression as well as with meeting basic needs. At the same time, a number of people have re-acquainted themselves with their creative centre and gotten back into painting.
One notable is the veteran artist turned businessman, Giko, who after years away, resurfaced to show his new works at the recent Affordable Art Fair. Another is Maurine Chuani whose business shut down in 2021, but who decided to make a different career choice. “I lost a lot during the pandemic, but I feel I have found myself now that I see myself more as an artist with a business background rather than a businesswoman who loved art,” she says.
Surprisingly, the government-backed the visual artists this year. Working with the Ministry of Sports, Culture, and Heritage, the National Visual Arts Organising Committee, and Nairobi National Museum, a total of 60 young artists were supported for an Artists-in-Residence programme that enabled them to be mentored by veteran Kenyan artists. Thereafter, their art was exhibited at the Museum.
The Museum was also the venue for a major exhibition in support of a Kenya Art Gallery. ‘Kesho Kutwa’ showed works by some of Kenya’s leading artists as a way of illustrating the need for such a National Art Gallery, one which was first proposed soon after independence by former Vice President Joseph Murumbi.