Pop-up art exhibitions used to be a rare phenomenon, something that was spur-of-the-moment and it had a less formal feel about it.
But nowadays, it is not only art exhibitions that are ‘popping up’ around Nairobi in increasing numbers. There are so many new studios, mentoring projects and workshops as well as pop-up exhibitions happening right now that one can hardly keep up with them all.
In fact, the landscape of the Kenyan visual art world has changed tremendously in the last decade, but even more so in the last five years and even in the past few months.
We still have busy formal gallery spaces like One Off, Circle Art, Red Hill, Banana Hill, Nairobi Gallery, Creativity Gallery inside Nairobi National Museum and occasionally, Muthaiga and Karen country clubs. Foreign cultural centres like Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institute have also been consistent gallery sites where visual artists find space to exhibit their art.
But there has been a mushrooming of new gallery spaces in the last few years. British Institute of East Africa (BIEA) got into exhibiting Kenyan artists but not so long ago. Then there is the Art Cupboard and Kioko Mwitiki’s Art Gallery both of which have come up in Lavington, and The Attic which currently has no fixed abode but was based in Nyari up until recently. One Off Gallery also set up an annex gallery at the Roslyn Riviera Mall. And upcountry, the Tafaria Castle even opened its own art gallery a little over a year ago.
Then there are the open houses, which are somehow equivalent to ‘pop-up’ shows. They happen in spaces like the Brush tu Artists Collective, Kobo Trust, Landmark Karen, Karen Village, Studio Soku and even Kuona Artists Collective where monthly pop-up styled open houses welcome local artists to exhibit side by side of the long-time Kuona regulars, like Gakunju Kaigwa, Kevin Oduor and others.
But what is most intriguing about the seismic shifts in the current local art scene is something that, at one level, is not new, since artists have been setting up studios in their homes for as long as contemporary Kenyan art has got off the ground.
But certainly, that trend has picked up steam in recent times. In part we saw it accelerating shortly before, during and after the Kuona Trust debacle and Kuona Artists Collective was born. Then more recently, when the GoDown decided to pursue a major redevelopment program, it led to shutting down the studios, leaving the artists now to fend for themselves. So where else to go to get back to work but in their respective homes.
The scattering of artists back into their home studios has led to some interesting phenomena. For one thing, we have seen an artist like Jeffie Magina (formerly at GoDown) move home but then transform his abode in Umoja into a small-scale art gallery itself.
Adam Masava had been mentoring scores of young aspiring artists in Mukuru slum. But when their space (a primary school) was closed, he returned to his studio in South B and reactivated his mentoring only with fewer numbers and selectively.
Mentoring of aspiring artists is another phenomenon that we have seen increasingly, especially since Patrick Mukabi moved out of the GoDown and into the old Railway Museum Art Gallery (which had gone bust) and transformed it into Dust Depo Art Studio where scores of young artists congregate and learn basic skills from the Master Mukabi.
Then in 2017, Brush Tu also started a mentoring program that attracted a wide range of young Kenyan and Pan African artists. It only went on officially for a year, nonetheless, the mentoring continues in the collegiate/cosy/convivial atmosphere of Brush tu.
In any case, the concept of mentoring has picked up more steam. Shabu Mwangi started doing it several years back at Mukuru Art Centre. But now we are seeing everyone from David Thuku, Dennis Muraguri, Meshak Oiro, Adrian Nduma, Phillda Njau, Kuria Njogu, Jeremiah Sonko and Jeffie Magina picking up the role of mentor. In part the trend could be traced back to the fact that Kenya doesn’t have enough teaching institutions that focus on fine art. Whatever the reason, the process has immense potential. The only problem I see is that some of the mentors could use a bit more mentoring themselves.
Nonetheless, these are exciting times in this ever-changing Kenyan art world where we hear about new art events every day. For instance, the Afri-Love Fest is happening tomorrow at Igikai in Westlands.