Opening remarks by Wakanyote N.
at Kuona Trust on the celebration of Kenya’s Jubilee Celebrations, 13th December 2013.
There is a story that during the World War, Kamba men who came into contact with the Makonde carvers were so impressed that they tried to import the curving craft back to Kenya – A fact, of which Kambas are famous for to this day. One man, I don’t quite remember whether this was the founder of the Wamunyu Kamba carvers, is said to have curved a pair of shoes from a log of wood. Imagine him jumping into these; this may well illustrate the state of our entry into the world of modern art in the world.
The foundations of a modern art movement in East Africa may be traced back to the founding of the Makerere College of Art in Kampala, Uganda, by Margaret Trowel in 1936. A number of students of the school have been associated with art in Kenya.
George Maloba, a Kenyan, executed the Ugandan Uhuru monument in Kampala and was to teach art at Makerere up to 1966, and was later to move back to Kenya, teaching and heading the department at the Kenyatta University for a long time. Interestingly, independent Kenya tuned to a foreigner to erect the first post independent monument namely the Kenyatta sculpture outside the KICC.
Elimo Njao, a student of one of the first batch of the Makerere school- Richard Ntiro, is another influential artist, art promoter and teacher who made Kenya his home of choice. Elimo executed the church murals in Kahuhia in Murang’a, and is associated with introducing many art promoters in Kenya including Ruth Shaffner of the Gallery Watatu fame. Elimo was also closely associated with the Chemi Chemi fountain of artistic endeavours in the Nairobi East lands, alongside such luminaries as South African Ezekiel (Eskia) Mphalele and others, including Hilary Ng’weno, Pheroze Nowrojee, Terry Hirst and James Kangwana. Elimo later moved into town along present day Koinange Street in Nairobi and run a gallery there before relocating to the Ridgeways home of Paa Ya Paa.
Another influential member of the Margaret Trowel School in Kenya was Luis Mwanĩki who headed the Kenyatta University department in charge of art. He will be remembered as the man who designed the papal mass robe when the pope held an open mass in Nairobi.
Other less influential Makerere graduates include Prof. Msangi Kiurire who taught at Nairobi and Kenyatta and remained a practicing artist until his death, as has Rosemary N’Karuga who is now ailing. Prof. Kĩnoti, who taught at the University, is said to have produced the first banana fibre piece of work in Makerere.
Art teaching in the mainstream of our educational system has had its mixed fortunes. In the primary school section, we had a double lesson art period on Fridays that was pure ecstasy for pupils. This was where we moulded with mud, used broken glass to curve ladles and, as Chelenge Rampenburg puts it, the teacher would tell us “draw me!” whereupon he folded his arms, slumped onto the table and instantly fell into a bored sleep. In all her school life, Chelenge never saw a piece of crayon, let alone paint. In 1983, the government made art a compulsory subject in primary schools, but this has since lapsed, and art is no longer a must subject. According to Emmanuel Kariũki, the fact that the government has deemphasized the importance of art in school means that the teachers are using the time allotted for art to revise the more “important” subjects. My pessimism over this matter was somewhat shaken by the optimism of Sylvia Gĩcia of Kuona who told me recently that this government is bound to do something about this because of its youth agenda and the urgings of this group. May that come to pass…
In tertiary institutions, the earliest teaching of art was from 1922 by the Kenya Arts Society based at the Arboretum but, according to Francis Kahũri, who was a token student there in the 1970s, the institution folded up when the then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry demanded that all educational institutions be racially integrated.
As above in the 1960s, Uhuru euphoria Chemi-Chemi Cultural Centre based in Bahati in Nairobi’s East lands opened. The period (1965) also saw the arrival of an Indian born artist, Kalyan Badrashetti, from Tanzania to found the Creative Art Centre where such artists as Samuel Gĩthũi, Maggie Otieno, Stephen Njenga, and Jimnah Kĩmani studied. The German and Canadian YMCA helped establish the YMCA Craft Training Centre in 1966, and it is there that the likes of Bertiers honed their craft. Keith Harrington briefly run an ad hoc school at the St. Johns upstairs and artists like John Gĩthĩnji, Saf and myself spent some time there in the late 1970s and 80s. In 1993, another East lands based institution sprung up at the Buruburu Catholic Church called Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts. BIFA has had a most positive influence on the art scene in Kenya, and its students include artists like Beatrice Njoroge, Emily Odongo, and Kaburu Leaky among others. The Nairobi Art Studio at the French Cultural Centre, which I coordinated, turned out to be a short-lived whim of then President Mitterrand’s wife and, like most of the donor oriented institutions, died out with the drying of funds.
Out of the Watatu Gallery, courtesy of Rob Bennet, sprout the Kuona Trust with its informal style of cross fertilization of artists working together. With Kuona and the Wasanii annual event, a steady outside exposure increased via international exchanges. Kenyan art truly went global and the very modern artistic expressions to be found in the West found its way here. Now, it is possible to see a Kinyozi signboard hanging in an art exhibition without sneers. Now, the art debate is no longer two headed, but three headed with the educated, the self-taught, and the ultra-moderns featuring.
It is also important to mention the Tabaka Kisii soapstone effort in Kisii closely associated with the veteran artist Elkana Ogesa. It may well hold the record of the oldest piece of sculpture in Kenya. One piece is reputed to be a hundred years old.
As for publications on art, there are a number, mostly by foreigners including Margaret Trowell in the 1940s, Judith Miller in 1975, Oomen Mar in the late 1980s and 90s, and others. I went through a hilarious situation when Oomen was interviewing me at the 680 hotel, as the hotel guards literally carried me down to the street level on account of my hairstyle. The only comprehensive study local undertaking has been Mazrui’s publication. There are a number of coffee table books on art, as well as a number of catalogues, too, but art magazines have not fared well, generally wounding up shortly after their launch. The papers and magazines have, at times, been most generous with their coverage and the Nation had at one time an art editor in Wahome Mũtahi. Otherwise, it seems the policy is dictated more by individual resilience as witness the role of Margareta wa Gacerũ as opposed to policy. There also exist many unpublished manuscripts by artists and art observers.
The art gallery scene in Kenya, mainly Nairobi centred, has been characterized by a high turnover. In 1985, the Museum availed a 50 square metre space for a Gallery of Contemporary Art which has now been greatly expanded. The old PC Kipande House has been handed over to the Murumbi Collection of mostly non Kenyan work. Of the survivors, Paa Ya Paa has survived along a long and winding road including a blaze of fire. Gallery Watatu, originally founded by Joni Waite, Robin Anderson and David Hurt – hence Watatu, ‘the three’- has finally closed down as did RaMoMa in 2010. One Off closed in 2001 when Carol Lees moved to RaMoMa, but has been reopened while other minor galleries struggle to keep their doors open. Ngeca Artists Association has survived from 1995 when it was founded by Wanyu Brush, Sane and Wairimũ Wadu, Chain Mũhandi, Sebastian Kĩariĩ and King Dodge. King Dodge has since left the Ngeca Association and now operates a gallery there called Ngeca Art Centre. Sane and Eunice have relocated to Naivasha where they run a home gallery. But so far, the longest surviving wholly Kenyan owned gallery has been the Banana Hill Studio and Gallery under the indomitable Shine Tani who, against all odds, has held monthly exhibitions for over 20 years. There is also a new artists’ run gallery at the Railway Museum. The latest gallery, to my knowledge, is Red Hill. The African Heritage founded by Allan Donovan and the late Murumbi in 1972 folded up in 2003. It was somewhat revived by Makena Mwĩraria, but its allure has since faded.
Among the organisations that have made major contributions in the Kenyan art scene in recent years is the Ford Foundation which supports the GoDown. The European Union continues to be deeply involved, especially around the activities of the Museum and the Ministry. RaMoMa did a commendable job while it lasted and Elimo’s Paa Ya Paa’s part should be commended as is Kuona Trust with its work that includes international residency programmes. The international School of Kenya has held an annual art fair since 2000 and the Village Market held similar fairs between 1997 and 2001 under the One Off gallery. Mamba Village provided refuge for artists flushed out of Kuona in 2004, but seems to have fizzled out in terms of art activities.
Generally, there is a shortage of public art in Kenya. The colonial government installed the commonwealth war memorials and we have the Parliament and City Hall murals. The Nairobi and Kenyatta universities boast some pieces including the familiar Gandhi Memorial and water fountain executed by Francis Foit, who is Morris Foit’s teacher and mentor. President Kenyatta had his sculpture elected at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre and churches have always commissioned murals and stained glasses with Elimo Njao’s mural at Kahuhia being perhaps best known. In the 1990s, I witnessed an ambitious undertaking in the Wajir Catholic Church by an Italian artist which should be a major showcase today. In the 1980s, Noni Croze did some murals on Buruburu houses facing the Outering Road, and she also executed the Goethe Institut-pieces, a fountain of mother and child included. Her Kitengela Glass stained glass work is seen in several Nairobi buildings. Murray Ngoima has done a mural at the Maji House up the Community Hill, as well as on a bookshop wall near the old OTC stage. The Nairobi Cinema used to have a mural by Renna Fennesy, as did the City Square Post Office. These have since been defaced. The Nairobi cinema mural has been painted over, and the other made inaccessible by a wall. The Museum boasts several pieces including one by Francis Nnaggenda. Gakunju Kaigwa did the diver at The Mall in Westlands, and lately, Kioko Mwitiki’s pieces grace the Airport Road and Nakumatts. Kioko also did the abstract sculpture near Unga House in Westlands. Morris Foit did the Jeevanjee metal sculpture commissioned by the Ford Foundation in 2003, and Ngeca boasts a donkey courtesy of Evanson Kang’ethe. For some reason or other, metal giraffes seem to be having a field day, and there is even a piece outside a Rongai hotel. And lately, the government has honoured heroes Dedan Kimathi and Tom Mboya…
What, can we say, characterizes Kenyan art? As alluded to there is, broadly speaking, the art trained and self-taught artistic bases up to the 1980s. Training was mainly at the Shauri Moyo YMCA, Creative Art Centre, Kenyatta University and Teacher Training Colleges. The self-taught artists mainly came from the Ngeca and Banana areas. Some of the self-taught artists have been described as pandering to the tourist market and worked in banana fibre and batik. Of these, Mzee Ancent Soi soared and perched onto non tourist art and was to win an Olympic design competition during the Munich Olympic. To a large extent, the influence of Ruth Shaffner exposed some of these unschooled artists to an international level. It was to her entrepreneurial credit that the likes of Sane Wadu, Zachariah Mbuno, Charles Sekano, Zachariah Mbutha and Francis Kahũri showcased their work worldwide.
From the 1970s into the 80s, the art scene witnessed an upsurge of a fierce nationalism that may trace its roots to the activities of the likes of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and others at the Nairobi University. Everywhere, artists and art lovers had passionate debates on the place of the state and the art, a national cultural policy, so called “art for art’s sake”, and all. The period saw an art to the people endeavour and we had open air shows in Korogosho, Jeevajee Gardens, Kangemi and other locations under the Sisi Kwa Sisi. Umoja wa Wasanii was also formed to further these goals. Teacher training tutor and artist Charles Dian’ga opened the Esipala Cultural Centre at his Maseno home. Names associated with this period include Elkana Ongesa, Etale Sukuro, Kavare Mĩano, Kĩbacia Gatũ, Kang’ara wa Njaambi, and others.
There is little influence in terms of local tradition, except by way of subject matter in our art. Joel Oswaggo and Zachariah Mbuno are foremost in this. It is also true that this was the case in the 1970-90’s when artists addressed issues such as domestic violence cum harmony and family planning themes, mainly inspired by the clients such as IPPF and calendar competition themes. Artists like Fred Oduya embarked on serious documentation of traditional homesteads and Katete did a Joy Adamson of sorts by embarking on a portraiture quest round the country in the 90s. The absence of a traditional art tradition is cited as a reason why there are no artists pursuing this area. Plus, the locals tend to view the few traditional art and craft with a bias born of their training and exposure which has tended to be exposure to Western art. Margaret Trowel is said to have tried to encourage her students to delve into this, but there is little evidence that she succeeded. Thus, the fertility dolls, Lamu doors, the Miji Kenda funerary posts, the gourd designs to be found in various utility items including the gĩcandĩ rattle, fertility designs on knobkerries, plus motifs on baskets, spoons and ladles, and so on. The nearest we come to the Tanzanian so called Square Painting by people like Tingatinga, Mpata, Mruta, and others has been the Kinyozi signs and the prolific bar, hotel, and butchery murals of the likes of Murai and others. The bar mural painting seems to have been introduced by the wave of refugees from the Congo crisis of the 1960s. They mostly painted lush densely forested villages in heavy strokes of black, green and yellow. The Congolese most likely also introduced the Mami-Wata siren – half fish half woman – in the bar murals. One such painter, Katembo, made a successful career straddling the River Road circuit, curio shops and galleries in Nairobi. Of note are also the Kikuyu and Maasai genealogical murals in bars by a coastal sign-writer called Salim. Mbatia, Kenyatta University alumni, was enthusiastic about bar murals and executed a number of them in places like Ngong. He also undertook some private work for the city engineer in the 1990s. The young generation has also embraced graffiti complete with social political messaging and the resultant hide and seek games between the young and the police.
The cultural field has often been a difficult terrain to manoeuvre in in Kenya. In the 1920s, the colonial government banned the Mũthĩrĩgũ song dance in Kikuyuland until Uhuru. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s activities with the Kamĩrĩthũ theatre activities eventually saw him detained and later live in exile as did many others. When Cege Kĩbacia artistically critiqued the murder of a local woman by an American sailor and the mauling down of a girl by dogs set upon her for ostensibly stealing a pineapple at the multinational Kenya Canners, he antagonized the state and had to flee out Kenya for many years. Samuel Wanjaũ’s Mau Mau sculpture, now housed at the Paa Ya Paa, was declared unsuitable for display in the streets of Nairobi for, the powerful Minister Charles Njonjo declared, it would frighten children. During the Moi era, self-censorship became a way of life for many in the arts.
Many in the arts agitated for a cultural policy in Kenya since the 1970s, but this only came to be enacted at the end of the 1990s. On the whole, the government’s stand on culture has always been ambivalent. During the Njonjo heydays, the docket fell under the Constitutional Ministry and the influence of Richard Leakey and the Museum. Even today, the person in charge of art in the Department must be a most befuddled character, for the shots are clearly called from the Museum. And the Museum clearly does a much better job than the Department that stored most valuable works of art in a kitchen to mould away for years. The ineptitude there has been monumental; there are artists’ pieces somewhere in Rome that have not returned since 2003. And can anyone in the Department itemize what lies buried in some, maybe, mouldy drawers at the now renamed (and in private hands?) Moi Sports Centre, Kasarani? All said and done, the government could do with some streamlining house-keeping…
But it’s not all mourning which we in the arts have often been accused of. The government has organized nationwide Nairobi based exhibitions the largest of which was in 1988 at the City Hall, Charter Hall, under Seba Magoiga-Seba. Seba’s tenure in the Department saw him work closely with artists and he was most supportive in the art-to-the-people cause being undertaken by people like Etale Sukuro, Kavare Mĩano, Kang’ara wa Njaambi, and others. Seba actively pursued and helped secure corporate support (mainly from Esso) for the visual arts. The Department has also held exhibitions on a provincial basis that has included the purchase of artworks.
Through the Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs, and funded by the European Union, the government has brought together the Kenya Visual Artists Network and held a juried exhibition dubbed “Power of Unity” in July 2012. And, happily, the Museum continues to be a hub of art activities. The Network, for one, could become a catalyst for major changes regarding art in the future…
At the height of President Moi’s reign, the country witnessed the greatest commissioning of public art by the Kenyan government. The nationwide Nyayo monuments spread across the provinces bear witness to this profusion. A more proactive role on the part of the government would go a long way to advance this cause. What we have advocated for over the years is that any building plans for office and public utility blocks should include compulsory public artwork by a Kenyan in the design before getting approved.
The above is not an exhaustive overview of the art scene in Kenya as we celebrate 50 years of Uhuru; but it will, I hope, shed a little light on the road we have travelled and which way hence…