Concrete steps giving Kenya visual arts national platform

Thursday September 02 2021

Makhan Singh, a trade unionist of Asian descent leading a Worker's March by Zarina Patel. PHOTO | KARI MUTU


In July a national visual arts residency was held in Nairobi, the first of its kind in Kenya. Forty upcoming artists from 16 counties were selected for the fully-funded placement that took place over 10 days at Karen Village arts centre.

It was an initiative by the Kenya government to support the African Union which is celebrating 2021 as the year of Arts, Culture and Heritage. “The residency aimed at bringing budding artists to produce artworks under the tutelage and mentoring of accomplished artists in their respective fields,” said Dr Kiprop Lagat, Director of Culture at the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage.

Sleeping Giant

‘Sleeping Giant’ by Derrick Munene. PHOTO | KARI MUTU

The residency was followed by Marajeo exhibition at Nairobi National Museum, this August, featuring the residency participants as well as other established artists. Among the three-dimensional works at Marejeo exhibition, I like the beaded vases by multimedia artist Dennis Kiilu and life-sized soapstone carvings by Isaac Monchere and veteran sculptor Elkana Nyongesa. Joyce Akinyi has lovely casts of the female torso, made from bronze-like filigree.

Fascinating, too, is cutting-edge digital photography by Kelvin Wamuiga. Zarina Patel takes us back in time with her historical painting Makhan Singh leading a Workers March, a true event spearheaded by the Asian trade unionist in 1937.

Curated residencies


Artists-in-residency programmes are a staple in countries with a vibrant arts ecosystem, offered by private galleries, universities and public institutions. Creatives get to step away from their various obligations for some weeks or months and focus purely on creating new works.

Over the years, some private galleries and arts collectives in Kenya have offered curated residencies but nothing to the scale of the national residency.

This is a huge step forward towards giving Kenya’s visual arts the national prominence it deserves. Dr Lagat says that his ministry appreciates the contribution of the cultural and creative industries to the national economy.

Although the government-sponsored residency was part of Kenya’s participation in the AU’s 2021 arts and culture theme, Dr Lagat said the national arts residency and exhibition will become an annual event.

Despite a lively art scene over several decades, Kenya stands out among African for the lack of a national arts institution and country-wide arts infrastructure, a huge disadvantage to individual creatives and art enthusiasts.

Paper Mosaic

'Paper Mosaic' by Faith Wambui. PHOTO | KARI MUTU

The Nairobi National Museum is perhaps the nearest thing to a national art gallery, being a state-owned institution where contemporary art exhibitions are regularly presented. The July national arts residence is one of several new developments promising a better future for visual arts.

Another is the recently formed Association of Visual Arts and Collectives (AVAC), a non-profit association seeking to build partnerships between the arts community and government.

AVAC is exploring new collaborations with the Nairobi Museum to benefit artists such as free artwork valuation, conservation services for artists and collectors, a database of visual artists and increased opportunities for them to exhibit at the Museum on subsidised rates.

Nairobi Museum’s art curator, Lydia Gatundu-Galavu says the exhibition space fee for Kenya artists is reduced to 10 percent of the normal cost, plus free access to the art galleries for all artists.

The museum is elevating the arts nationally by providing a platform for artists for exhibitions, workshops and talks to learners. “We want to give opportunities to students and researchers on historical art, pre-historic collections, traditional art and archival material.”