It has been more than 50 years since the idea of the National Art Gallery of Kenya (Nagok) was first mooted, and at last there seems to be hope for its fruition.
As a precursor to the Gallery’s establishment, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) is currently hosting an exhibition at the Nairobi Museum called Kesho Kutwa (the day after tomorrow), running until October 15.
This exhibition is a hint of what to expect once Nagok is established and open to the public. “A combination of artworks from Kenya’s finest contemporary artists and historically significant pieces from NMK’s permanent collection,” said Kibunjia Mzalendo, director general of NMK, at the opening of the exhibition.
A pictorial at the exhibition shows the long timeline of the project. Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s late second vice president and a big supporter of the arts, introduced the idea of a state gallery in the 1960s. His vast collection of African art, cultural objects, books, maps and stamps, stored at the Kenya National Archives, is arguably the single largest assemblage by an African.
In the 1970s, the National Archives building in Nairobi was proposed to host a national art gallery, an idea supported by Sisi kwa Sisi artists, then a group of indigenous Kenyan artists. But a change of political priorities killed the idea and the artists disbanded.
The project died too. There was not much government-driven or supported artistic activity in the 1980s and 1990s, although local galleries, arts collectives and donor-driven enterprises kept the creatives scene active. In 2006 there was another failed attempt to create a national gallery dedicated to Kenyan art.
It was not until 2018, when the Nagok working group was officially formed and the first workshop held in 2019, bringing on board a range of visual arts stakeholders. Although Covid-19 disrupted project planning in 2020, the Nagok committee now hopes to present a Cabinet memo before the end of this year.
Kesho Kutwa is a well-curated exhibition with spectacular art pieces from five contemporary artists: Peterson Kamwathi is one of the most exciting of the second-generation Kenyan artists.
Working in a diverse range of media, Kamwathi’s highly symbolic art tends to review of socio-political themes. His Kesho Kutwa paintings of men carrying children on their shoulders or individuals performing acrobatic stunts explore individual and collective circumstances.
A low-key but deep person, Michael Wafula is not seen much in the public arena but works quietly with a small group of artists. His vividly coloured abstract paintings are eye-catching at first, then a longer look reveals much more. Wafula applies several layers of paint than carefully scratches away to expose numerous symbols that keep the viewer gazing for long.
Stripping away layers
Beatrice Wanjiku’s lively personality belies a deep thought process that produces figurative images in raw, penetrating, somewhat dark style. Her shadowy illustrations of rib-caged torsos at the Kesho Kutwa are about the ‘stripping away of layers by’ the Covid pandemic.
From Peter ‘Ghose’ Ngugi’s, a remarkable self-taught artist, are some larger than life portraits of smartly dressed, people. His silhouette figures with featureless faceless, animated gestures and surrounded by African fabric patterns have a captivating familiarity to them.
At first Dennis Muraguri’s big, colourful matatu art scenes look like regular paintings but they are actually woodcuts, produced in a long and intense process. Working on wooden blocks, he cuts out the vehicles, people and buildings then meticulously paints them.
Kesho Kutwa also presents Kenyan artefacts from thousands of years ago. On display are miniature pottery figurines of cattle, discovered in the Turkana Basin and dated to around 4,000 BC.
A rich collection of prehistoric items, rock art and traditional objects are housed at NMK which suffers from inadequate exhibition space, contributing to poor public awareness.
Compiling, curating and exhibiting the history of Kenya’s visual arts is one of the Nagok objectives.
The proposed facility will have a children’s visual arts education centre for the youth.