East Africa’s fast-evolving arts scene

This month sees the first-ever auction of modern art from East Africa, and interest is growing globally. Tristan McConnell investigates the boom.

Sudanese artist Eltayeb Dawel Bait enters the glass-clad lobby of a shiny new high-rise in Nairobi, clutching a stack of battered wooden boxes and suitcases in his arms. He puts them down next to a scaffold tower that reaches to the top of the double-height ceiling and stands back to look at his nearly-completed work. The 44-year-old is putting the finishing touches to an installation commissioned by financial services company PricewaterhouseCoopers to add soul to its new regional headquarters.

“I was very pleased with the fit-out of the building but it didn’t have life,” says Vishal Agarwal, a PwC executive who personally interviewed 11 artists before choosing Dawel Bait. “I want to live and work in spaces with some character and style. These corporate environments can be so bland and there’s no reason it has to be like that,” he says. Agarwal moved to Kenya nearly a decade ago to put together infrastructure deals around the region.

Dawel Bait’s commission was to fill two six-metre-high recesses either side of a glass wall in the ground-floor reception. He did so by mounting aged wooden carpenter’s boxes and nail cases into which he etched and painted the distinctive, ghostly faces that are a recurring motif in his work. “The boxes contain the lives of the people who owned them and then I add the movement and the faces,” says Dawel Bait. For Agarwal the boxes etched with faces speak to a workplace for thousands of people where they can seem, at first glance, to be an undifferentiated crowd of suits but, when you take a closer look, are individual and different.

Dawel Bait is at the forefront of a fast-evolving visual arts scene in East Africa, one that is only now gaining recognition globally, as well as at home. Next week he will be among 43 artists from around East Africa whose work is being showcased at the region’s first-ever auction of modern and contemporary art.

Going to market

Organised by Nairobi-based Circle Art Agency the aim, according to director Danda Jaroljmek, is to kickstart a local art market for the first time. “The auction is an important platform to introduce new artists to the market. Our aim is to create a strong local market for the talented artists we have here in Kenya,” she says.

The 47 works are mostly paintings as well as drawings, sculptures, photography and mixed-media pieces. Reserve prices range from $230 for an 8x10in woodcut print on paper by Tanzanian-born Evarist Chikawe to $25,000 for an 8.5ft tall (2.6m) hardwood sculpture of a dancing warrior by Kenya’s Samuel Wanjau. At $7,725, Dawel Bait’s mixed media The Spirit of Faces is priced higher than most.

The location and style of the auction indicates the aspirational upper-middle class Kenyan buyers that Circle hopes to attract: it is being held in Nairobi’s new five-star Villa Rosa Kempinski hotel with Jaguar cars and Mumm champagne among the corporate sponsors.

One of those planning to bid next week is Tony Wainaina, managing partner at investment firm Fanisi Capital, who has been collecting contemporary East African art for the last 15 years and so is something of a trailblazer in the market. “It is only very recently that Kenyan collectors began to consider Kenyan art seriously,” says Wainaina. “We’re only now beginning to understand what is good art and also the business of art.” Wainaina hopes the auction will draw Kenyans’ attention to their own art and its growing artistic and financial value.

Camille Wekesa, a visual artist and collector, shares Wainaina’s aspirations for East Africa’s art. “For a long time we’ve been considered the poorer cousin to West African and southern African art, so this auction is a step in the right direction for the way East African art is considered,” she says. The aim is not to attract foreign buyers so much as local ones who, up to now, have often not seen value or merit in domestic art. Wekesa says this is important if Kenya is to develop a sustainable art market. “The auction is targeting that group of Kenyans who have disposable income but aren’t looking at Kenyan art,” she says. “We in Kenya are willing to spend a lot of money on an imported car but don’t understand the value of art, either as art or as an investment.”

Wekesa argues that the growing interest she has seen, as both a collector and a producer of East African art is “a natural progression following the broader investment interest in Africa”. The artists whose work will be going under the hammer next week hope to make some money but that is not the only aspect of the auction, nor even the most important one. “It’ll allow us to see how much interest there really is for art that is being produced here,” says Michael Soi, a 40-year-old Kenyan artist who is selling a 6.5ft (1.98m) wide acrylic on canvas painting called, appropriately, Auction.

Soi, whose father Ancent is also having a painting sold at the auction, is wary of the investment side of the equation (“I don’t want people to use my work to speculate,” he says) and frustrated by the tendency for foreigners, rather than locals, to buy Kenyan art. “I feel really nice when a local person walks into my studio and buys something but it makes me sad that my dad, who’s been painting for much much longer than me, says that no local has ever bought a piece from him.” Soi hopes the auction might help change that. It is, he says, “about education, sensitisation, making some noise.”

It is also about trying to build an art scene that is viable and that has the scale and infrastructure that would allow it to stand alone and no longer rely on the generosity of foreign institutions such as the Alliance Française or the Goethe Institute, which fund a large chunk of art production in Kenya.

“We don’t have the galleries, the art schools, the infrastructure for artists,” says Wekesa of the current state of affairs. “Art isn’t even on the school curriculum. I don’t know where the next generation of artists is going to come from because it seems that we’ve decided it’s not important.”

“What Kenya needs is a serious gallery scene and a network that can contextualise the art,” said Sam Hopkins, a 34-year-old Kenya-based conceptual artist. Hopkins praises the holding of the auction for “putting Kenyan art into the context of contemporary art,” in a way that is “not in any way patronising”.“It’s a totally different discourse,” Hopkins says. “It’s not ‘Come and support this as an act of charity’, it’s ‘Come and buy this because it’s great art’.”

Pride of place

Despite the challenges and shortcomings faced by the artists who choose to live and work in Kenya, and Nairobi, they say it is an endlessly stimulating and inspiring place. Hopkins is currently a guest curator at the Iwalewa Haus in Beyreuth, Germany, and says, “There are 200,000 registered artists in Berlin so you’re just adding to the noise. When I’m in Europe I just don’t feel the same need and desire to create things.”

Much of what is being produced is very urban and very clearly born out of the Nairobi experience. “When I took the step to become an artist [my father] inspired me but we are two different artists,” says Soi, “one has grown up in the village, the other was born in the city.“I made a conscious decision to make work that revolves around my environment, the Eastlands of Nairobi. I can’t paint Maasai villages with women milking cows, I paint garbage trucks and buses,” he says.

The same holds true for Dawal Bait, who came to Nairobi from Khartoum in 1997, and stayed to enjoy the freedom and vibrancy of a frantically growing city connected to the wider world. He feels that for those producing art right now East Africa’s moment is, at last, coming. "The art market is really developing," he says. "There’s something happening in Europe where now they’re discovering East African art, the big companies here in Kenya are creating spaces for art and people are learning to differentiate between the quality of art being produced."

The auction, Dawal Bait says, captures that moment: “I’ve never attended an auction so I’m only learning about it now, but what they are doing is important in showing the quality and the diversity of art in East Africa.”

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