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Art

Private collectors stand in for a national gallery



PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG
PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Kenyan creatives have been complaining for years that they do not have a National Art Gallery such as the ones in Harare, Johannesburg, London and Washington, DC. Kenya has a National Museum, but it was designed to display fossils and dead birds before it took some interest in the arts.

The one resort where one can go to at least see the works of Kenyan and other visual artists is the Galleries, Art Centres, select restaurants and various hotels. Such places include galleries like One Off, Circle Art, Red Hill and Banana Hill, art centres like Brush tu Art Studio, Kuona Artists Collective, Kobo Trust, Paa ya Paa and Ngecha Art Centre (with the GoDown closing shop for renovations) and restaurants such as the Tamarind, Talisman, Que Pas and the Intercontinental Hotel.

But none of these venues are designed to keep a permanent collection of Kenyan art which they preserve in temperature-controlled conditions that ensure the art survives in spite of the heat, cold, vermin and neglect. The one exception is the National Museum, but few people have been able to see inside their store or ensure that the artworks have retained their original form.

This is when there’s no where else to look for the preservation of Kenyan art but to private individuals who collect, display and also take special care of the art that they own. By now, Kenyan contemporary artists’ works exists in both public and private collections overseas. For instance, it’s impressive that the British Museum owns one piece by Kenya’s own Peterson Kamwathi and that UNESCO has Elkana Ong’esa’s bird at the entrance of their Paris headquarters.

Portrait by Patti Endo

Portrait by Patti Endo. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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But equally or perhaps even more important are the local collectors who collect and carefully retain local artists’ works. Among them are businessmen like Mutuma Marangu with his vast collection of Kisii stone sculptures, broadcasters like Jeff Koinange whose collection is Pan-African, not only Kenyan and gallerists like Hellmuth Rossler-Musch whose large private collection compliments his public exhibitions of contemporary art.

There are also some local artists who collect the works of their peers which they have obtained either by swapping their art for their friends’ or in rare cases, buying a piece at a reduced price. One British artist who lived in Nairobi for several years and painted portraits of countless Kenyan artists is Dale Webster. Dale has returned to UK but he swapped so many portraits with leading Kenyan names that his collection of art is substantial and looked after with loving care. One Kenyan artist who has a sizeable collection of contemporary Kenyan art is Jeffie Magina. He has only been collecting since 2009 but Jeffie’s abode in Umoja Estate proves that one need not be wealthy in financial terms to be rich in appreciation of the works of local artists.

Jeffie has art by everyone from Patrick Mukabi, Michael Musyoka, Boniface Maina, Kota Otieno, Ehoodi Kichapi and Kevin Oduor to BSQ artists Kenneth Otieno and Bebeto Thufu, Gloria Muthoka, Nicholas Odhiambo, Wilson Matunda, Mike Chalo, Evans Ngure and Dixon Otieno. He has art by Zachariah Mbutha, Peteros Ndunde, Evans Yegon, Joseph Weche, Joyce Kuria, John Kariuki, Melanie Manosi, and John Kamicha. And he even has works by Longinos Nagila, Patti Endo, David Thuku, Remi Musindi, Charles Ngatia, Hassan Ali and Daisy Buyanzi.

Jeffie’s home in Umoja defies the notion that one must be rich and live in a mansion to own fine art. What he has is the foresight to have known that all these busy people were passionate about their painting and seriously committed to growing their creative capabilities.

Granted since his flat is not vast, most of his artworks are miniatures. And many were conceived when the artists were just picking up steam in their styles of expression, experimentation and innovation. For instance, Jeffie has several pieces by Michael Musyoka which only give one an inkling of where Musyoka’s artistic adventures will take him aesthetically. The same is true of the pieces he has by Boniface Maina, Longinos Nagila and even David Thuku.

Many of his pieces were obtained through swaps with the artists. But Jeffie, who has a background in finance, says he didn’t make those swaps solely to support his fellow artists.

“Of course, I knew their art would only accrue in value in the future,” says Jeffie who understands both the aesthetic and the economic value of building his own collection of Kenyan art.

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