Art

New art institute opens a milestone for Kenyans

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Sane Wadu’s ‘Broken Calabash’, painting at Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute at Rosslyn Riviera Mall in Nairobi on January 24, 2022. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • The fine arts scene has started on a good year, going by the events that took place last week when the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI) had its official three-day opening on the top floor of Nairobi's Rosslyn Riviera Mall.
  • There are many reasons for the excitement that surrounds the opening of NCAI, the most prominent of which is the person behind the initiative, an artist who returns to Kenya, now world-renowned.

The fine arts scene has started on a good year, going by the events that took place last week when the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI) had its official three-day opening on the top floor of Nairobi's Rosslyn Riviera Mall.

There are many reasons for the excitement that surrounds the opening of NCAI, the most prominent of which is the person behind the initiative, an artist who returns to Kenya, now world-renowned.

Locally, Michael Armitage is a name that grabbed social media fans’ attention recently when his painting fetched Sh150 million at an art auction.

Few Kenyans had seen Armitage’s art except for those who had sought it out online at Artsy or the White Cube website where the London-based gallery displaces some of his paintings.

So word that he is the force behind a new Art Institute in Kenya became big news.

BDLife sat down with Armitage a few days after the opening and found him surprisingly down-to-earth as well as keen to share his vision for NCAI, which he says is to create a not-for-profit art institution that can fill the gap between the early iterations of Kenyan art and the current contemporary art scene.

“We’d like to fill in that gap,” says Armitage who also hopes NCAI can build a permanent collection of Kenyan art, something that people like the late vice president Joseph Murumbi wanted to see Parliament support back in the 1960s.

“Right now, we don’t have a [historical] context for viewing Kenyan art. That’s one reason we decided to feature Sane Wadu, [one of Kenya’s pioneering artists], as our first major exhibition,” he adds. Yet Armitage explains that art exhibitions will only be one aspect of NCAI.

“We will also focus on [art] education, eventually to establish a post-graduate programme. But that is something we are now doing the groundwork for.”

His director of NCAI, Ayako Bertolli adds, “We are starting small, holding artists’ talks and possibly running monthly discussions of interest to artists. But we are still developing those ideas as we grow the Institute.”

NCAI’s director of programmes, Rosie Olang’ Odhiambo adds that initially, NCAI will build programming around the Sane Wadu exhibition.

“In February, Sane will give an artist’s talk, followed by a children’s art workshop, comparable to what he does at his studio in Naivasha. He also might do another workshop on documentation, since he has been so good at keeping records of his art and art sales.”

The three capacious galleries that NCAI occupies at the Mall are filled with three fascinating dimensions of Wadu’s art. Beautifully curated by Mukami Kuria, the first gallery contains Sane’s earliest paintings, some in water colours, others in mixed media, and just one in oils.

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Sane Wadu’s ‘Eunice’ in watercolors on paper, at NCAI, Rosslyn Riviera Mall, January 24, 2022. PHOTO | POOL

“We believe this was his first oil painting,” says Armitage who identified 1984 as the year Sane says he began painting. Yet that date has already been questioned by friends who think he would started painting earlier than that.

Works in this first gallery are a revelation since they are largely figurative and even reverential, given Sane was quite religious at that time.

Yet most of what the public has seen of his art is reflected in the second gallery, which contains works from 30 years when his art had been influenced by Gallery Watatu’s Ruth Schaffner. During those years, his painting became more abstract, less figurative, and sometimes described as surrealistic.

It is in the third gallery that one sees Sane the archivist who kept photographs of all his Watatu shows. These are displayed under glass. The most interesting feature of gallery three is Sane’s painted overalls, which he wore in the late 1970s to Gallery Watatu.

They are the clearest sign that Sane started painting years before 1984.

But NCAI quotes the artist’s recollection, aiming to build a credible basis for becoming Kenya’s leading art institution.