Karen Country Club has not always been a venue where one could go and find contemporary Kenyan art. But ever since Sam Mwai became the club’s general manager, that changed.
“We have several thousand members and nearly all the Kenyans have bought art since I came here in late 2011,” says Mr Mwai who is an avid art collector himself.
“Initially, we hosted artworks from Circle Art, but once Danda (Jaroljmek) found gallery space in Lavington, we’ve been having a new collection of art every month,” he says.
The artworks are supplied by Tom Simbey, an enterprising itinerate curator who creates group exhibitions of contemporary Kenyan art at several venues.
“I also curate shows at the Royal Golf Club, the Vetlab [Golf Club] in Loresho which is affiliated with University of Nairobi’s School of Veterinary Medicine. And I also take artworks to exhibit at the Sagana Getaway Resort,” he adds.
“But out of all those places, the one where people show the greatest interest in Kenyan art is the Karen Club,” Simbey says, noting he also shows the works of various Ugandan artists whose art is well-received in Kenya.
“They include artists like Lukwago and Kasagga as well as Ronnie Tindi, Mark Kassi, Paul Kasambeko and Lima, the only woman of the Ugandans.”
Among the nearly 20 artists whose paintings he currently has hanging all over the Club, nearly half are women. Several are Kenyatta University students, like Joy Kemunto, Lamanda, Diana Wangari and Taabu Munyoki who just graduated. The others include Celeste Devries, a South African artist who will have a solo exhibition at the club next month, Taskin Butt and Bantu Meka, a 14-year-old student at Brookhouse School who follows in the footsteps of another talented teenager, Katana Kay who is now studying fine art at a university in the US.
Other Kenyan women artists whose art Simbey has shown at Karen Club include Mary Ogembo, Wini Awuondo, Rose Ahoro, Joyce Kuria, Husna Nyathira Ismail, Daisy Buyanzi and Suki Danborough.
But men still feature more prominently at the Club. For instance, Kamau Kariuki’s five large impressive impesto portraits of Kenyan people are the first works you see as you enter the lobby.
Joy Kemunto’s pop art portrait of a green haired queen also engages the eye. But then, so does Andrew ‘Crea’ Chege’s construction sites and Gilbert Ouma’s haunting black and white figures.
As one walks through the lobby and up to the lounge and restaurant, the artist that paints men wearing wonderful hats is Kibet Kirui.
Perhaps his most arresting work is his aerial view of a drummer beating his drum kit. You have to look twice to grasp what the man is doing, but once it registers, the painting has an imaginative appeal.
Simon Mureithi’s art is in the boss’s office for good reason.
“Once I saw the [untitled] piece, I had to call the artist and ask him to bring it here,” says Mr Mwai who does not hide the fact that he admires Kenyan art.
There is more Mureithi in the restaurant along with works by the Kenyatta University lecturer Wanjuki Kamunya and Jacob Wambui who is painted another eye-snatching piece, this one of the front end of an old Blue Buick.
Simbey has been strategic in hanging art all over the club, including in the lobby of the gym where one finds more work by Kariuki and Kamunya.
He is even hung it in the club’s conference room where Peter Mburu’s giant Acacia tree dominates the room while Allan Omwaha’s figurative work, ‘Ready for Night Fishing’ displays a ship docked but about to set sail.
The other artist who has several sweet pieces in the GM’s wing is the youthful Bantu Meka, whose parents are club members who must be happy to see their daughter’s artworks not only shown but also sold by Simbey.
“Artists get 70 percent of every sale,” he explains. “10 percent goes to the club and I get 20 percent,” he adds.
Asked how he prices the art, he says he likes to leave that to the artists. That’s why prices range from Sh15,000 to over Sh200,000.
“The one thing I recommend is that artists be consistent in their pricing. If they normally sell their work for Sh40,000, then they shouldn’t up their prices simply because they have come to Karen,” he adds.