Kioko Mwitiki did not need to set up an art gallery in his name to make himself a player on the global – let alone the local art scene.
One of Kenya’s first scrap-metal sculptors, Kioko started early to create life-size replicas of Kenyan wildlife and take them everywhere from the JKIA, Berlin, London and Jos to Copenhagen, San Diego, Missoula, Montana and Tel Aviv.
He might have become one of those Kenyan artists who is better known abroad than back home if he hadn’t constructed his own Kioko Mwitiki Art Gallery next door to Lavington Mall.
Now his gallery attracts up-and-coming artists like Matt Kayem, whose one-man exhibition just opened last weekend (running through early December) to come have exhibitions at his spacious double-decker venue.
Kioko also attracts aspiring artists of all ages to come and take classes with art teachers including Teresa Wanjiku who offers one-on-one classes as well as group sessions upstairs in an atmosphere suffused with artistry by everyone from Kioko himself and Victor Omondi to Peter Kibunja, Annabel Wanjiku and Shade Kamau.
“I’ve taught students as young as three and as old as 39,” says Teresa who’s a graduate of Kenyatta University’s fine arts department.
“We have lots of professional people come in. Some are retired, others have successful careers but come in saying they have always loved art but had felt pressured to become a lawyer or some other professional,” says Kioko. “They admit they feel there’s a gap in their lives and want it filled with art. That’s how they start taking art classes with us.”
But Kioko says he has met a number of millennial artists who claim they don’t need galleries anymore since they successfully sell their works on Instagram. Meanwhile, there are others who want to rent space in his gallery to hold pop-up exhibitions without necessarily being represented by Kioko or even assisted by his curator Za’idi Onsango and Thadde Tewa.
“We are up for that as well, since we also meet young artists who sell their works online, but also want a little space to show their art in our gallery. We are happy to give it to them.
“We also don’t mind advising young artists who come in and ask for it,” he says as he introduces me to Za’idi, who assisted the Ugandan artist Matt Kayem in curating his current exhibition.
“I really like Matt’s art because I feel his style is unique,” says Za’idi referring both to his way of painting on denim [not canvas] and his style of print-making which is to orchestrate visual settings and then including himself in them.
Practically all Kayem’s prints feature himself in self portraits either as a ‘Royal Guard’ holding his spear and sitting on a wooden stool or as a ‘Son of the Sun’ basking in equatorial light or as a ‘Bad Muganda, Good Afrikan’.
He is ‘bad’, he says because he’s not a typical Baganda. He’s transgressive because he wears dreadlocks which most do not, has pierced ears which few have, and in one self-portrait, he even places his foot atop a branch-full of matoke bananas which is unthinkable for an upstanding Baganda to do.
Intent on rejecting ethnic elitism, Kayem’s prints use colourful African textiles (aka Dutch wax-print fabric) as backdrops. In a sense, they are more like autobiographical installations in which he designs the visual content; and then photographer Saidi Stunner ‘shoots’ him in various poses, including one in which he aims to deconstruct colour stereotypes. Called ‘Highly Melanated’ he stands in a row with three beautiful young women, each having a slightly different shade of chocolate brown.
Kayem’s paintings are less polished but more reflective of his fascination with African history and African-American culture. Several works feature a mix of historic and contemporary images. One has an Egyptian Pharaoh standing next to Kanye West, Ghanaian architect David Ajaye and himself! Another has Michael Jackson in a line with Mohammed Ali, George Washington Carver, Beyonce and himself.
Kayem’s art is meant to ensure you won’t forget him although his most unforgettable painting isn’t in this exhibition. It is on his Instagram account. It is a portrait of a male nude that Za’idi saw and assumes is him.
“His presence in his artwork gives it an intimacy which I like,” she says, wondering what would’ve happened if it had been included in the show.
“It might have shocked some people, but it could have sparked good conversation and debate.”