Hold me back? Not informal training

Friday April 3 2020

Tewa art by Ethiopian Artist Tegene Kunbi.

Tewa art by Ethiopian Artist Tegene Kunbi. PHOTO | COURTESY 

KARI MUTU
By KARI MUTU
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Visual artist Thaddeues Wamukoya, better known as Thaddeu Tewa, has turned is an independent art curator and dealer.
As an artist he has created graphical cartoons, animations and life drawings. He is working on a collage collection s to present publicly soon.

In 2016 he joined the Polka Dot Art Gallery in Nairobi as a gallery assistant for two and-a-half years. Here he gained a first-hand knowledge of the workings and challenges of running an art gallery.

Today Tewa promotes artists through art exhibitions and pop-up shows around Nairobi, in places such as the Village Market, Metta Nairobi and Gyros 2 Go Restaurant.
Some of the people he has presented are Adrian Nduma, Taabu E.Munyoki,Crae (Andrew Chege) and Nicholas Odhiambo from Kenya.
Others are Ismael Katerrega, Anwar Sadat, Damulira Shira, from Uganda, and Khalid Abdel Rahman from Sudan.

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How would you describe yourself – an artist, curator or art dealer?

I see myself as an artist because I think and visualise a lot of my projects before doing them. Instead of being pigeon-holed as an art dealer or contemporary art curator, I prefer to see myself as an artist with extra skills and ambitions such as writing, curating and selling art.
What inspired you to get into art promotion and sales?

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My former boss Lara Ray of Polka Dot Art Gallery inspired me. She saw something in me that I didn’t. She believed I could grow and be good at it. As a close friend and patron, she saw in me a potentially great art dealer and sales person from the first time we met in 2018.
How did you build up your knowledge for the work you do?

Before my job I didn’t have much knowledge about the Kenyan art market. Then I realised there was a lot of art coming out of artists’ studios but not as many buyers. At the gallery I had access to high profile artists, curators, art writers, collectors, books and art magazines that really enlightened me.

I also read a lot about old art dealers and gallerists, the international art market and business news which all enrich my work.

How do you select which artists to promote?

Honestly, I don’t have any specific criteria. It depends on my personal connection with the artist or their art and also the needs of art lovers and clients. But now in my second year I’ve been focusing on launching new artists that I think need my support and attention. For example Margaret Njeri [Ngigi] is a brilliant visual artist and photographer.

What sort of skills do you need as an art dealer?

Main thing is how people perceive the founder or art dealer. Do they have in-depth knowledge of art? Do they visit art studios and do they buy art? Once you have a great collection and you have time for the audience, other stuff like accounting and business skills can follow.

Do you have a physical gallery?

Not yet, high rent being a major reason. But I have a plan to own a permanent space in the future.

What do you like most about what you do?

Being myself and not having to be someone else when around artists, art lovers and my clients. The feeling I get when visiting and having a conversation with an artist is everything.
How do artists perceive you as an art curator?

Being a young industry player has been a challenge especially when dealing with artists who are my peers, some of them don’t take my requests for artwork or advice seriously. Some intentionally don’t give me latest works for my shows.

Some compare me with the established galleries and assume I can’t sell their work. With clients, on the other hand, my age hasn’t been a big deal. Some actually are surprised when they get to know my age.

What are some of the other challenges of marketing Kenyan art?

Space is a major challenge. Convincing an artist to showcase in a space that isn’t same level as established galleries is hard. Also convincing clients to visit a show in a mall or restaurant is challenging. But I think most established art dealers or curators have been through this before they got their permanent physical space.

Tewa with art by art by David Thuku. PHOTO |
Tewa with art by art by David Thuku. PHOTO | COURTESY

Pricing art is a big challenge in the Kenyan market. Most artists are misguided by gallery exhibitions, fellow artists or mentors who have sold a lot of pieces. An artist can overprice artwork, and refuse to heed my advice and get frustrated in case it doesn’t sell. I think the expectations and entitlement in some of the artists is high.
Where did you train in art?

I don’t have formal training. I think I wanted to be involved more in the art scene rather than being in a class. Luckily I had some networks in the art scene when I came to Nairobi. I enrolled The GoDown Arts Centre for a creative entrepreneurship course for two months which gave me a lot of knowledge, insights and networks in the art world.

My hope is one day my life will get easier for me to pursue ‘proper’ art training. I think I’ve been resilient and persistently trying to pick up skills from any successful person I meet in the art world because I knew this was the only way to feel close to an art college.