When the Nairobi Contemporary Arts Institute opened in January, it indicated that the visual arts industry in Kenya was bouncing back after the Covid-19 pandemic.
The onset of Covid in 2020 shut down galleries, exhibitions, and art fairs globally.
“We thought it might be the end of Circle Art, but instead we have had the best two years ever,” said Danda Jaroljmek, founder of the Circle Art Agency and Gallery in Nairobi. “People got in touch with us because now they were at home, had more time to look at art and to think about the things they really cared about.”
By April 2020, Kenyan galleries were showing art through online exhibitions, and in-person viewing on appointment resumed by mid-year.
Leveraging digital technology played a key role in sustaining art galleries. Circle Agency ramped up their online presence, grew their Instagram following and kept audiences regularly informed about artists through in-house videos. “We’re beginning to sell artworks from Instagram followers of the artists,” said Jaroljmek.
Instead of cancelling their annual Art Auction East Africa in November 2020, Circle Art organised its first virtual event. It was live-streamed, with an auctioneer and buyers bid via phone and e-mail. Ninety percent of the lots were bought and total sales amounted to Ksh14 million ($120,000).
One Off Gallery, another prominent space in Nairobi, held its first art auction by WhatsApp in March 2021, when lockdown regulations were still in place. Auction bids came from customers in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Kenya. Feedback from buyers was that it was “less formal and not as stressful,” said gallery founder, Carol Lees, after the event.
The International School of Kenya in Nairobi, which hosts an annual art show and sale at their premises, also took their event online and has continued with this format. The annual Affordable Art Show by the Kenya Museum Society's October 2021 show achieved the second highest sales ever.
There is a view that it is better to buy directly from the artist, for lower prices and to avoid the commission retained by a gallery.
“But that commission covers a lot of work behind the scenes,” said Jaroljmek. She lists services they offer including visiting artist studios, finding new works, assessing private collections, price valuations for insurance purposes, and practical matters like packing and shipping art."
Jaroljmek encourages art lovers to interact with artists, but acknowledges that some people find it difficult to discuss work.
“That’s why we have intermediaries like galleries. They provide information, advice, listen to the buyer and send art portfolios for their consideration,” she said.
In Kenya, artists are at liberty to switch galleries, depending on who can sell their work, but many are starting to understand the benefits of signing up with just one.
“As an artist, ideally you should create and let somebody else do the selling,” says Wambui Collymore, an installation artist, arts consultant and founder of the online Art Space gallery.
“Galleries are important to the arts ecosystem because they are one of the controlled ways of selling artwork," she said.
Gallerists are also riding on the rising demand for African art by overseas institutions looking to expand their range of works for sale or to develop permanent collections of African art.
In June, Circle Art will present the Wajukuu Collective of 10 Kenyan artists at the Documenta contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. With their networks in the international art market, galleries are taking local artists to a global audience.
“You cannot have an entire roster of white artists anymore and this is good for our artists.”
Local galleries have also been at the forefront of getting East African art shown at prestigious fairs such as Art Dubai, the Cape Town Art Fair, London’s 154 Art Fair and AKAA fair in France.