Running a gallery is no easy task.
Art is rarely a priority purchase so apart from the business end of it—the consequent need to offer easy terms and the inevitable cash flow problems that brings—there is the constant need to present something fresh and exciting enough to persuade collectors and casual buyers alike to seek a deal.
But in a market in which the major galleries are increasingly presenting a regular rota of trusted (and contracted) big names, that is far from simple.
Economics dictate that overheads must be met and that means new talent can be overlooked, although the big three privately owned Kenyan galleries—the One-Off, Circle and Red Hill—make every effort to present a few new names, usually in themed mixed exhibitions.
The Alliance Francais and the Goethe Institut, free of commercial restraints, operate fairly open door policies, as does the National Museum of Kenya for which the criterion seems to be “inclusiveness”, sometimes with disastrous results for quality.
Meanwhile, groups like the Kuona Trust, Brush Tu, Studio Soku and in Uganda the Weaver Bird centre play a huge role by opening their studios to the public and encouraging in-house exhibitions by their members.
Step forward too those galleries willing, if not forced by circumstance, to seek out lesser known artists and also to give a start to a few new ones looking for exposure.
I am thinking particularly of the peripatetic Polka Dot, William Ndwiga’s Little Art Gallery, and Willem Kevenaar’s Attic Art Space, plus the two longest surviving galleries in Kenya, the Paa ya Paa in Kiambu and the Banana Hill Art Centre to the west of Nairobi. I have a soft spot for Banana Hill.
Their exhibitions, organised by the husband and wife painters Shine Tani and Rahab Shine can be of variable quality, but their enthusiasm and encouragement never dims. And if you do not care for what is on the walls there are around 2,000 other works from across East Africa to be seen in the racks and storerooms of this vast bazaar.
Paintings and sculptures by such popular and reliably competent painters as the Kenyan Patrick Kinuthia, the Ugandans Ismael Kateregga, Jjuuko Hoods and Ronex Ahisimbiwe and the Tanzanian Haji Chilonga can always be found there, plus a selection by Shine and Rahab themselves, as well as more quirky Outsider offerings by, for instance, Sebastian Kiarie and Kivuthi Mbuno.
And there are delightful surprises too. Typical are the paintings by Nayianoi Sitonik in the gallery’s current exhibition, Artists’ Dreams.
Sitonik is now based at the Kuona Trust studios having previously worked at Karen Village and the GoDown where she was a pupil of Patrick Mukabi, which explains the accurate drawing that underpins her work, her expressive line and the clarity of her compositions.
Born in Loitokitok, the artist moved to Nairobi as a child and has been painting full time for around seven years, exhibiting notably at the Polka Dot, the National Museum of Kenya and at Alliance Francais.
Here presenting figure paintings and landscapes plus a couple of woodcuts of her imaginary home — a hut snuggled among trees — Sitonik told me, “My landscapes are how I remember my home to be and how I would want it to be.”
Her wistful self-portrait Lonely Sometimes demonstrates perfectly how her drawing has developed; the modelling secured by weight of line and her appreciation of the importance of detail shown in the realignment of the eyes—so unexpected yet so correct—that lifts the work to another, higher, level and makes it both memorable and special. It moves it beyond illustration and by carrying the essence of the subject becomes a valuable portrait.
Exhibiting with Sitonik are Esther Mukuhi and Caroline Mbirua, who also have been working quietly around the Nairobi art scene for several years.
Mukuhi who is showing around 20 paintings, places her jewel-like colours within bold black outlines on flattened perspectives that reduce her backgrounds to mazy patterns, and her nostalgic, more literal works like Old School recall the days of public telephone kiosks and feature fashions from the 1970s.
Her instinctive sense of design is given full play in Ante Natal Care and It’s Our Role, featuring repetitions of lips and breasts, capitalising on the power of pattern to the point that their forceful rhythms, brought to a crescendo in Many Faces, would work superbly as minimalist wood or lino cuts.
Inspired by nature, people and colour, Caroline Mbirua in the 27 paintings shown here favours thinned paint in subtle swirls to create figures and landscapes that emerge and recede before us, remaining elusive and mysterious.
The figures in Golden Bracelets and Yellow Music are typical, yet even more successful is a group of some 14 reductive landscapes, many with a single image of a tree or a small huddle of figures; distillations of her enigmatic style.
It is hard to keep a gallery going, it is true, but when talents like these can be unearthed and promoted it all becomes well worth the struggle.