At 4:30pm along Nairobi’s Mbagathi Road, young men and women in their 20s make their way to the Ardhi Gallery ready to end their weekend.
Years ago, hanging out in art galleries was not part of young Kenyans’ weekend plan, but now it is.
The shift from spending time binge drinking in clubs or at home playing video games is gradual but it affords art galleries new clientele.
On this weekend, Ardhi Gallery is showcasing young upcoming artists using recycled materials to create murals and sculptures, an exhibition that has attracted many young Kenyans.
Inside the gallery, about 20 youngsters are exploring the artworks.
They are taking pictures, as laughter echoes through the walls where the artworks are hung. Some have come in groups, others are on romantic escapades away from the noisy town. Others are on solo dates.
Pillie Nkasara, who has been to over a dozen galleries in Kenya says she started visiting art spaces when she was 25 years old and adores the works of Jessica Atieno and Isaac Karuga.
“I believe GenZ and millennials are drawn to art as a form of self-expression and a way to connect with diverse perspectives in an increasingly digital world. I love how these generations have embraced the concept of living in the moment and enjoying the little grand things like art,” she says.
“Jessica Atieno's work is unusual, fresh and very imaginative. She is very skilled. Isaac Karuga mainly does oil paintings. I love realism,” she adds.
Her most memorable art experience was seeing the 'Moon man gone under sea' painting by Jessica Atieno, exhibited in January at the Redhill Gallery.
“It challenged my preconceptions, and deepened my appreciation for the power of art to provoke thought and emotion,” she says.
Kioko Mwitiki, the owner of Kioko Art Gallery says there has been a significant rise in the number of young people visiting art galleries.
“Those participating in art programmes, either taking classes or just appreciating art, have also gone up. Although some of them are not able to buy art, the fact that there's a surge in visitors shows an interest in the arts,” he says.
Shedding stigma and elitism
Mr Kioko adds that galleries are leveraging social media to reach the younger generation through monthly exhibitions and social events where they can engage with artists and their works.
“There was a lot of stigma and elitism in the art space, so only certain galleries were showcasing as well as well-known artists, but all that has fallen to the side, we have demystified art and made it accessible to all,” he adds.
He also notes that the young generation has taken a keen interest in digital and contemporary art, not the typical landscapes.
A time to redefine
“Galleries like mine have to redefine themselves. Some are having problems staying afloat because most are just houses. We have to be more interactive with these young people, have nice spaces, try to make them happy and not get stuck in the past or the old ways.”
He argues that artists and gallery owners embrace change and have crazy ideas, curate spaces for young people by speaking their language through music sessions, art exhibits, and other happenings in the same space.
“We have a very aggressive generation and they'll comfortably spend between Sh20,000 to Sh100,000 on art pieces,” says Mr Kioko.
“We have curated an arrangement where they can slowly pay for the piece in instalments but the same people buy fashion things online and have their own platform which is also a marketplace, and spend a lot of money on sneakers among other items.”
40 visitors a day
Christine Oguna, the Ardhi Gallery owner, finds me wandering in the gallery enthralled by the artwork. Ms Oguna started Ardhi in April this year, and young art lovers have been coming in droves. The fact that the gallery has a restaurant above it that acts as a crowd-puller.
“We have about 40 visitors in a day and most of them are young people. In a week we do three sales on average,” she says.
Part of what she is exhibiting today is installation art of the Shakahola massacre made by Njoka Kuria.
One of the things that stood out for me was the young artists from Kibera and Mukuru slums in Nairobi, who were using recycled materials to make art.
“I felt that there should be a space for emerging artists after seeing some of my family members getting rejected. That's how Ardhi was born, to support upcoming artists to become a bit more established and grow their professional careers,” she explains.
The stepping stone
Ardhi is the Swahili word for ‘ground’ and Ms Oguna defines it as a stepping stone for young artists who want to exhibit their works from the ground up.
Although she does not paint or draw, the artistic gene might have not completely skipped a generation, because she is an inborn curator who loves making spaces beautiful.
“I decided on Ardhi so that the average Kenyan can access it and dismantle the notion that art is a rich-people passion, everyone can come and enjoy the exhibition.”
She has an agreement with the artists who pay a commission once an art piece is sold.
Mr Kuria recently started exploring rubber. He gets his inspiration from Chakaia Booker, an American sculptor whose work has been featured in more than 40 public collections and exhibited across the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
The sculptor is known for creating monumental, abstract works from recycled tires and stainless steel.
At first glimpse of the installation, it fills the room with such heaviness and darkness and not from the dark recycled rubbers. It is enormous.
Rubber as a medium of choice is innately personal to Mr Kuria. He speaks of it with such depth when he says he cannot articulate it.
The rubber mystery
“Explaining the Shakahola piece or my love for rubber is never easy, I fumble on that question, and every time I try to articulate it, it comes out different,” he says.
“The rubber material is mysterious, how it feels, how I can manipulate it, cut it, wrap it, wrap it like a rope, the result is not like other sculptures from wood or clay,” says Mr Kuria.
“It gives you something intricate, unique. The installation was an opportunity for Christine to showcase an entire centrepiece at the gallery and I happily accepted.”
The present exhibition highlights the artist’s unique skill and technique in manipulating and compositionally crafting the rubber tyres into myriad forms from the Mambo Blackness (2023) and intricately detailed Kitawaramba' (from the words of Pastor John Mackenzie) to the wall-affixed, Bush Baby (2023).
Mr Kuria says he has seen a growing interest from young collectors and art lovers coming to see his work.
They interact on social media platforms like Instagram with his art collection and in person at art galleries.
“Many artists are making their craft easily accessible to young people in terms of reach and pricing,” adds Mr Kuria.
Other artists who exhibited at the gallery are Chrispus Ngaanga, Yvonne Nzilani, Kevo Stero, Myrna, Brain Kajilwa, and Solomon Powell. Mr Ngaanga’s preferred medium is old cassette tapes but has also done old newspapers and book cuttings.