A new bridgehead for East African art is to be established in the Netherlands—another sign of the growing international interest in contemporary art from this region.
It comes thanks to Willem Kevenaar, who set up the Attic Art Space in Nairobi shortly after arriving in Kenya some six years ago.
Now he is moving back to Amsterdam, and he is determined to continue promoting the emerging talent he found here.
At the Attic, in the suburb of Nyari, and then later with a series of pop-up shows in Loresho, both in Nairobi, Kevenaar focused on showing stylish work by young artists who included Moira Bushkimani, Wallace Juma, the photographer Joy Maringa, Michael Musyoka and Lincoln Mwangi.
In Amsterdam, Kevenaar intends first to organise a series of pop-up exhibitions (starting with works from his own collection) to test the market and then, if all goes well, to establish a permanent gallery in the city.
Artists he is keen to show include the Kenyans Onyis Martin, Shabu Mwangi, Longinos Ngala and Lemek Tompoika, whose works he feels will appeal to a European taste.
“It’s not about me, it’s about them; meaning all the wealth of emerging talent in the region—including Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Sudan,” Kevenaar said.
He leaves in April, but a planned farewell exhibition and party has been postponed to October because of the arrival of coronavirus.
Growth in the international appeal of this region’s art was reinforced at the recent auction held by Circle Art agency of Nairobi. The seventh in the series, it featured a record 70 paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists from seven countries, including Egypt and the DRC.
For the first time there were more international buyers than locals which, while ensuring a healthy inflow of foreign exchange, did little for Kenya’s First Generation artists.
Received wisdom is that locals like the pioneering work of these, now elderly, artists while international buyers prefer more contemporary work.
Exceptions to this were a strong Sane Wadu from 1989 called When God Met Man, which went for $5,290, and a Richard Onyango from his classic Drosie series that went for $4,930.
However, a handsome oil by Wanyu Brush failed to sell, as did a fine collage by Rosemary Karuga of a woman collecting firewood, although another striking piece by her, of a stork, was sold for $2,290.
A large painting by Meek Gichugu failed to find a buyer, as did canvases by Francis Kahuri, Lucky Mutebi and Sebastian Kiaire.
Disappointments were not confined to the earlier painters, however. Contemporaries unsold included Richard Kimathi, Boniface Maina, Peter Ngugi (of a stylised cat on a windowsill) and Anthony Okello.
A large and intricate painting by the Tanzanian Max Kamundi was also left in the saleroom, although first rate pieces by two Ugandans from the early Makerere intake found ready buyers.
These were the glowing Lady in Red, by Eli Kyeyune ($5,990) and a ravishing flower piece by the late Francis Musango (cheap in my view at $2,000).
The stunning seated nude Girl Musing, by the Congolese Robert Saidi, for me the highlight of the show, sold for $6,104.
The Kenyan sculptor Kioko Mwitiki sold a life-size steel racehorse, made in 1998, for $5,870. It is his skill and success that sparked the jua kali industry, whose copyists’ giraffes, hippos, peacocks and warthogs line major roads of Nairobi.
Overall the auction realised $225,000, slightly down on last year’s $300,000, but higher than the $210,000 of 2018.
The dip was attributed to the unexpectedly high price last year for an original E.S. Tingatinga that skewed the result. It sold for $54,000 against a top estimate of $8,000.
This year (comparative) sanity returned with one E.S. Tingatinga of a bird in a tree selling for $12,914, and another, of women washing by a river, for $8,218.
Highest prices of the sale were the $13,500 for a 214cmx171cm landscape Behind Lukenya Mountain, by Yony Waite that went for $13,500, followed by the Tingtinga bird and then a compelling Peterson Kamwaithi charcoal of protesters that fetched $12,327.
The good news for Kenyan artists is that the country’s new Artists’ Resale Royalty law awarding five per cent of the net hammer price (the hammer price minus 15 per cent seller’s premium and VAT) now applies to all except charitable secondary market sales.
The bad news is that this law has yet to spread across the region.