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Art

State rekindles hope for national art gallery

National Archives
The National Archives building in Nairobi. The building had been picked to host the national art gallery before a change of plan in 1979. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU 

How often have Kenyan artists had their expectations lifted high in the hope that they’d at last be taken seriously and get their own National Art Gallery?

They had seen other countries recognise the importance of the arts by creating a national institution that celebrated their creativity, individuality and even their national identities. African countries like South Africa, Namibia, Senegal and Benin (among others) all have national art institutions that recognise the positive role that the arts, culture and creative expression play in contributing to both a sense of national identity and those countries’ gross national product.

Even countries in the Middle East and Asia (like Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh) have national galleries as do most in Europe and states in US.

But despite the creation of a National Art Gallery having been a topic of conversation since the dawn of independence, the talk has never borne fruit.

The closest that Kenyan artists came to having their own national gallery was in the late 1970s when the plan was to convert the former Bank of India into the gallery. But then, the funds for the project disappeared mysteriously and the whole plan dissolved, salvaged only slightly when that space was turned not into a gallery but into the National Archives.

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But this past week, a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon when Nairobi National Museum called a wide range of so-called ‘stake holders’ to discuss the notion of developing a National Art Gallery of Kenya (or NAGOK).

And while the guest of honour, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, the Arts and Sports, Amina Mohammed wasn’t able to attend the opening ceremony, her representative, Mr Hassan Noor assured the gathering that Ms Amina has already begun raising seed capital for the gallery. What’s more, he said she is committed to establishing a ‘world-class’ National Art Gallery before she leaves office.

This could be a challenge since chairman of the National Museum board Tony Wainaina suggested the time frame for completing the National Art Gallery could be between four and five years.

Nonetheless, the mood among nearly all stakeholders present at the workshop was upbeat and hopeful. That included a number of the artists, private collectors and gallerists representing spaces like One Off, Circle Art, Banana Hill, Kenyatta University, Ngeche Artists, Wildebeeste Workshop, Kenya Museum Society, Samosa Festival, Kenya National Visual Artists Association and the Museum itself.

What’s more, artists came all the way from Maseno, Naivasha, Kisii and Lamu to participate in the workshop, thus reflecting the Museum’s commitment to opening up artists’ participation in the process of building NAGOK.

As a way of obtaining stakeholders’ input, another Museum board member, Kibachia Gatu organised four working groups, each with a separate topic to discuss.

The topics included artists’ participation in the NAGOK process, sustainability and the role of the arts in Kenya’s economic and social development, NAGOK’s relationship to other art institutions, be they local, regional or international, and finally, the scope of NAGOK’s cultural space.

To ensure that all the stakeholders were ‘on the same page’, Ms Lydia Galavu, curator at the Museum’s Creativity Gallery gave a brief historical overview of the visual arts in Kenya. She traced it back to Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell School of Art which East African artists attended. Among them were Kenyans like Gregory Maloba, Louis Mwanyiki, Rosemary Karuga and Asaph Ng’ethe.

Then came Chemi Chemi and Paa ya Paa which Elimo Njau cofounded with Pheroze Norowjee, Hilary Ng’weno, Jonathan Kariara and Terry Hirst among others. There were several commercial galleries that came and went, but in the 1980s, Sisi kwa Sisi (represented by Zarina Patel and Etale Sukuro) launched a movement to bring art to the people. Subsequently, the art scene has grown exponentially, both in terms of artists’ collectives being established and commercial galleries like One Off, Circle Arts and others coming into being.

Nonetheless, the visual arts community in Kenya has never been a cohesive body. Nor has it had strong government support up until now when it would seem the Kenya Government is prepared to get behind NAGOK.

Speaking to the group at mid-day, Kenyan industrialist and philanthropist Manu Chandaria also noted that now is the first time the government has expressed an interest in the [visual] arts. “Let us push this initiative as much as we can,” he said. ‘No museum [and possibly no country] can survive without a national art gallery,” he added.

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