With Circle Art Gallery’s mounting of its ‘Vanguard I’ exhibition, Danda Jaroljmek assembled a wide range of wonderful Kenyan artists who were active ‘in the 1980s and 1990s’.
And by so doing she has formally debunked the false notion that Kenyan contemporary art only kicked off the other day or only in the 21st century as some recent observers to the Kenyan scene speculate.
What’s also true is that quite a number of the 26 exhibiting artists at Circle were active, not just in the 80s, when the late Ruth Schaffner arrived in Nairobi from Los Angeles and bought Gallery Watatu from Yony Waite (whose art is part of ‘Vanguard 1’ along with that of another Watatu cofounder, the late Robin Anderson) in 1985.
Many in the Circle show were busy working artists much earlier than the 80s. Indeed, Yony and Robin with David Hart established Watatu in 1969 and were busy throughout the 70s. Elimo Njau together with friends like Pheroze Nowrojee, Terry Hirst, and others started Paa ya Paa in 1965.
And that is where the great Kenyan sculptor, the late Samwel Wanjau got to work sculpting the awesome Mau Mau Freedom Fighter (which was downed recently by dark unnamable forces and is now in need of urgent repair).
Wanjau worked at PYP in the 1960s. In fact, one of the most stunning (and precious) works in the entire Vanguard show is Samwel Wanjau’s seven foot tall wooden ‘Mwoboko’ sculpture, mwoboko being the name of the Kikuyu dance this finely-carved couple are poised to begin.
Ancent Soi, Jak Katarikawe and even Theresa Musoke (all in Vanguard 1) were also exhibiting at Watatu in the 70s. And Yony Waite was already good friends with Sane Wadu during those ‘early’ days.
Ancent Soi (yes, father of Michael) was already hosting his own solo ‘exhibitions’ inside the Nairobi City Market where his stall was originally booked to sell fruits and vegetables but it became a popular showcase for his art. It was from there that the elder Soi got wind of the Olympic ’72 poster art competition, which he won and which earned him a trip to Munich to pick his Olympic prize.
Theresa Musoke, the one award-winning Ugandan artist in ‘Vanguard 1’ was also exhibiting at Watatu in the 70s. She’d studied overseas but couldn’t return to her homeland as it was still being marauded by barbarians like Idi Amin and Milton Obote.
Even the one South African artist in Vanguard 1, Charles Sekano, was exhibiting his original wax crayon drawings in the 1970s when it was Goethe Institute that gave him his first solo show.
He was a refugee from the Apartheid regime at the time and claimed he’d taught himself to be an artist by sitting in local libraries for hours, studying books on fine art.
In short, one wonders why Circle didn’t stretch the description of the period being revisited as that of the 70s as well as 80s and 90s. It’s true that the majority of the 26 derive from the 80s, including Annabel Wanjiku, Meek Gichugu, Kivutha Mbuno and Zachariah Mbuno (father of artists Kamicha and Njuguna) as well as Shine and Rahab Tani and a whole slew of Ngecha artists like King Dodge Kingoroti, Wanyu Brush, Sane and Eunice Wadu (all of whom are currently on display at Nairobi National Museum as members of Ngecha Art Centre).
But as laudable as Vanguard 1 is, it might inadvertently mislead the public into believing Kenyan contemporary art only took off in the 80s, which is clearly debatable.
Even Wanyu Brush got serious about painting in the late Sixties when he joined YMCA’s Craft Training Centre. Francis Kahuri also kicked off his art career in the ‘70s after studying at the little-known Kenya Art Society. And of course, our ‘cucu’ of contemporary Kenyan art, Rosemary Karuga, the first Kenyan woman to get a degree from Makerere University in fine art, was painting from the Fifties.
The point is the Kenyan art scene was well on its way some decades before the 1980s. Nonetheless, a brilliant art marketer like Ruth Schaffner made it her commercial ambition to make Kenyan artists renowned not just in Kenya but in places like Frankfurt and LA. She did a pretty good job of it.
But I’d say Circle Art is doing even better by bringing together so-called ‘second generation’ artists like Sane, Meek and Annabel with authentic pioneers like Ancent Soi, Samwel Wanjau, Rosemary Karuga and even Yony Waite; then placing them all in the ‘vanguard’.