A roller coaster ride for artists in 2017

Cyrus modelling one of his new pieces. PHOTO | MAGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG
Cyrus modelling one of his new pieces. PHOTO | MAGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

The year 2017 has been a thrilling roller coaster ride. Mostly the roll has been uphill, with new spaces opening up all over town (from The Attic to Safron Spa to Dream Kona and BIEA, to name a few).

Meanwhile, the more established art centres mounted many great exhibitions (like Proximity to Power at Circle Art, The Nude at One Off and Eclectic at Red Hill).

There were also a number of downhill slides, as when The Art Space closed, Kuona Trust got robbed and finally died, but then resurrected as Kuona Artists Collective, and three artists were banned from exhibiting at the Nairobi National Museum.

There was never a dull moment in Nairobi’s robust art world in 2017, what with graffiti artists finding new walls to spray-paint all over town.

Then there were cartoonists taking on larger issues like climate change, “speaking truth to power” and even migration and refugee art power.

A multitude of aspiring artists headed to the Dust Depo Studio to get their mentoring from Patrick Mukabi whose gentle greatness was recognised recently when President Uhuru Kenyatta and First Lady Margaret attended Dust Depo’s annual Christmas party!

Won awards

Artists did themselves proud this year, what with their representing Kenyan art at the Venice Biennale and at other international events. Some won major awards as did Maral Bolouri and Elias Mong’ora at the APSA L’ Atelier in South Africa.

Meanwhile, others like Cyrus Kabiru and Wangeci Mutu had their iconic art picked to be part of the new Zeiss Museum of Contemporary Art Africa based in Cape Town. And in spite of the somewhat toxic political climate that disrupted many aspects of Kenyans’ everyday lives, various art institutions provided a valuable sense of continuity to cultural life.

For example, there was Circle Art’s annual East African Art Auction (which is now renamed The Art Auction – East Africa), GoDown’s Manjano Art Competition and Exhibition, and even the Sarit Centre’s Kenya Art Fair, all of which went on like clockwork in the course of the year.

And while increasing numbers of artists travelled abroad this year, either to accompany their exhibitions or attend workshops or art residencies, Brush tu Art Studio successfully organised Kenya’s second international artist residency. (The first was at Paa ya Paa starting in the 1970s and running through 2000s).

Corporate support

Meanwhile, the corporate community has increasingly come to appreciate the role of contemporary Kenyan art. Among the banks especially, we havee seen how the Kenya Commercial Bank expanded its collection of works by Kenyans this year. So have the Commercial Bank of Africa and the I&M Bank.

Meanwhile, Barclays #ticker:BBK was the backer of the L’Atelier competition and just before the year ran out, the Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB) supported a beautiful exhibition of a dozen Kenyan artists at the Kempinski Hotel.

Malls have also picked up on the value of beautifying their centres with Kenyan artists’ works. For instance, Two Rivers and Lavington Mall both decided to decorate their public spaces with marvellous mosaic tile murals by Mary Ann Muthoni.

The Hub selected Peter Ngugi’s concept of a monumental Coffee Tree which now stands 12 feet tall in the centre of the newest Karen mall.

But even as major investors like Garden City and PriceWaterhouseCoopers have supported important art projects in the recent past (sculptures by Peterson Kamwathi and Maggie Otieno at Garden City; monumental wall artworks by Dennis Muraguri and El Tayeb at PwC), public interest among ordinary Kenyans has also picked up. In fact, there were several “affordable art” shows in 2017.

They attracted large crowds and enabled folks with smaller pocket books to buy Kenyan art. There were shows at Nairobi National Museum (sponsored by Kenya Museum Society), the Polka Dot Gallery and the newly formed Kuona Artists Collective. But one of the biggest disappointments of 2017 was the downing of the iconic Mau Mau Freedom Fighter at Paa ya Paa.

Samwel Wanjau’s priceless sculpture can potentially be repaired. But this malicious deed deserves to be investigated by the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Sports.

If there is one good deed that the Ministry could do in 2018, it is stepping in to repair Wanjau’s Freedom Fighter and put it in a safe and secure place so it can be enjoyed by both locals and people from all over the world.

Nairobi has already been called the “economic”’ hub of East Africa. The arts initiative of 2017 confirm the city is also the Arts Hub of East Africa.