The fact that African art predates recorded history-with some Niger rock paintings dated at 6,000 years before the invention of writing- underlines the significance of the continent as the cradle of modern art.
Most of this ancient artifacts were skillfully crafted to elicit imagination, emotions and religious mystics hence its no surprise that they have inspired numerous artists, some of whom went on to become legends, and art forms.
Pablo Picasso, Clemente Modigliani, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gho are just a few examples.
According to the Wikipedia, an online resource base, interaction between these European artists and African art in the turn of the twentieth century through colonization triggered an intensified interest in “abstraction, organization and reorganization of forms and exploration of emotional and psychological areas hitherto unseen in Western art”.
Besides the continent being the origin of the un-naturalistic representation commonly known as abstract art, Africa has also been the source of inspiration for western architecture due to its unique style that has blurred boundaries between painting, sculpture and architecture.
But the comparison apparently ends in the shared heritage.
In most parts of Africa the general art story is that of the talented youth who clings to the job by selling his work to expatriates, tourists and rich local collectors at peanut rates in order to escape from the clutches of poverty and idleness.He wields the brush or chisel from the confines of his dingy makeshift studios tucked deep in a slum somewhere. On the other hand, his western counterpart is said to wallow in money and fame from the thousands of dollars he gets
from the sale of pieces in highly competitive world auctions.
However South Africa have spearheaded a turn around of this popular stereo type by developing western world art market dynamics, which in effect have reverberated across the continent by providing a role model through which other countries can engineer their success.
Owing to the “rainbow nation’s” rich history in visual arts that stretches back to pre-colonial era, the last decade have seen a tremendous growth of the creative industry signified by the mushrooming of numerous art galleries in cities and townships across the country.
Led by the South African National Gallery located in the scenic Company Gardens on Government Avenue in central Cape Town art galleries are as popular in that country as fish and chips joints are in Nairobi central business district.
With it’s first work acquired in 1871 the National Gallery falls under the umbrella of Iziko Museums of Cape Town that includes collections from Michaelis School of Fine Arts in Cape Town and famous local collectors like Dr. William Fehr and Natale Labia.
Apart from the state owned facility that acts as the country’s art flagship there are other regional galleries across major cities like the Durban Art Gallery in Kwazulu-Natal, the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Gauteng and the King George VI Gallery in Port Elizabeth all of which showcase collections of indigenous, historical and contemporary works from the respective provinces.
Supplementing these major art houses is a huge plethora of university, corporate and commercial galleries all of which promote and exhibit works by thousands of artists from across the country and the continent.
One of the most prominent non-indigenous beneficiaries of this South African art explosion is Anthony Wakaba Mutheki whom a section of the media once branded the “African Van Gogh”. Born in Kenya 37 years ago Mutheki went to South Africa in search of opportunities where he is said to have ended up in the streets selling bottle tops to buy paint.
“Having lived in a shelter in Johannesburg, surviving from the sale of empty coke bottles, I experienced and learned to understand poverty and the harsher side of life,” Mutheki explains in his blog www.wakabamutheki.co.za. “This love of life clearly shows itself within my paintings as raw energy, I have no formal art training and therefore never been taught to instill this “power” in my pieces, it simply comes naturally”.
His comparison with the legendary Dutch painter emerges from his powerful use of colour and course brushwork which injects reality and intensity in his hugely captivating pieces. This combined with an exceptional ability to tinker with the real and the surreal in equal measures have earned the classification of realist-impressionist from many art observers.
Mutheki’s meteoric rise began after his work was spotted by Craig Mark, an influencial gallery owner who enlisted him into the famous Mark Galleries stables.
But even after this discovery the gifted artist had to paint his way up the competitive South African art scene, the climax of which was being chosen alongside 39 top artists from around the world to work for a Nelson Mandela heritage program.
Apart from his work being exhibited and auctioned in major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Dubai and numerous European capitals Mutheki has also consolidated a diverse pool of loyal collectors across the globe which includes Oprah Winfrey, Chris Tucker, King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu, Gallo Records, Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli Foundations.
From selling pieces at a $1 during his street days Mutheki’s works are said to earn figures in the regions of $11,500 (sh1.5m) in major auctions across the globe. But despite the enormous success the artist remains little known in Kenya, his country of birth.
Besides the “African van Gogh” Wangechi Mutu is yet another Kenyan artist whose monumental achievements abroad is solid prove that the country is a rich pool of talent. Born in Nairobi 40 years ago Wangechi schooled in Britain before proceeding to America where she has steadily risen through the ranks of the fiercely competitive New York art world. The prolific artist have exhibited her work in major cities across the world and worn numerous accolades including Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year Award and the Richard Leakey Merit Award.
Despite the monumental success of Kenyan artists in the Diaspora most of their counterparts back home seem to be a not-too-happy lot. They contend with a myriad of obstacles that includes image problems, lack of recognition, poor training and scarce corporate sponsorships.
The artists’ plight is further complicated by the fact that there are very few galleries for them to showcase their works and public sensitization is outright low.
Judy Ogana, The GoDown Arts Centre General Manager, blames the whole situation squarely on the government.
“The fact that art was made unexaminable in the school system greatly eroded its perception among students,” she says. “This was like a covert statement that art is no longer relevant or an important avenue through which one can earn a living”.
Although the industry supports a significant section of the population who channel their work through curio shops and the few flourishing galleries, the Kenyan visual arts industry is anything but a success story. Its generally perceived as a past time endevour or a pursuit by those with interest in the tourism sector.
The only platform on which youngsters can vent their creative energies in the school system today is through the music and drama festivals. This means that those with a painting or carving talent have to pursue it privately or it will end up getting lost all together.
Ogana says downgrading of arts in school have also generated an image problem for artists who are now perceived by the general public as lazybones whiling their time in an unprofitable endevours.
“There is a missing link because whereas the arts are unexaminable in secondary schools art is offered on a degree levels in the university, making one wonder what methods are used to quantify the candidates’ abilities,” the GoDown’s manager explains adding that it’s virtually impossible to incite art enthusiasm in the public without generating interest in the formative education stages.
Although several universities are offering art on a degree level they rarely produce outstanding artists with most of the prominent names having learnt or perfected their skills in the streets, peers or through Kwani Trust,” she says.
The visual art world in Kenya, she says, only attracts attention from the state when tourism creates a demand or the ministry of youth is looking for ways to create new employment opportunities.
“Such a sporadic intervention hardly has an impact in creating a mass interest on art from the local population,” Ogana points out. “This means only a very tiny section of the population recognizes or buys works from top local artists or attends exhibitions”.
The impact of these has been a very slow, if any, growth of art galleries and the closure of those that were previously doing well. Unlike the Ministry of Culture and Social Services whose efforts seems to be solely on the music and drama festivals held annually at the KICC, it’s South African counterpart is one of the brightest spots in that country’s government.
“Because of the huge attention the government have projected on the arts in South Africa the industry have received a huge corporate support making it a source of livelihood for many”.
The GoDown Art Centre was set 10 years ago by a several artists and a gathering of various interests groups conducted a research that established that there was need for an affordable premise where artists could meet to network and articulate their talent.
“Places available for artists before were mostly foreign cultural centers which were either too expensive or not exclusive to artists,” Ogana explains. “We needed an authentically Kenyan environment which is what we have today at the Art Centre”.
Among the artists housed by the centre includes renowned cartoonists Gado, songbird Suzanna Owiyo, MEDEVA and numerous visual artists and contemporary dance groups.
Unlike The GoDown that only provides space, Kuona Trust was setup 15 years-ago to train, develop and provide a platform for creative artists to display their work. The trust’s director Danda Jaroljmek points out that South African art has been hugely boosted by institutional recognition, an aspect that is lacking in Kenya.
“Unlike in Kenya, South Africa has serious art schools training art writers, administrators and critics all of whom are as important to the industry’s success as the artists themselves,” she explains.
“In Kenya we not only lack such advanced institutions but also a professional national art council as is the case in many other countries across the continent,” Danda notes adding that South African art consumers also enjoys incentives like tax exemptions on pieces which is unheard of in Kenya.
Kuona Trust encourages its in-house artists to develop their work around issues affecting society like corruption, domestic violence and conservation all of which is evident in the innovative creations that litters its compound in Hurlingham.
To join the trust artists must display talent, curiosity, commitment, enthusiasm and above all else passion. Among the prominent names in the Kuona stable includes Gakunju Kaigwa, Michael Soi, Peterson Kamwathi and John Silver.
The ministry of culture and social services is in a process of establishing art academies in the provinces but private industry players are hugely pessimistic about the move because there was no prior research to establish the needs per geographic zones.
However there are several visual artists who have managed to remain afloat through the tuff and rugged terrain that is the local art scene. Judging by the number of projects that he has been commissioned to do Gikunju Kaigwa is perhaps one of the most prominent sculptors in the country at the moment.
Besides having worked on the “diver” outside The Mall and numerous private collections in people’s homes Gikunju was commissioned by the Born Free Foundation to design the life-size lion sculptures that were displayed along the central business district during the “Pride of Kenya” art exhibition geared towards conserving the big cats.
Although Gikunju have been a freelance artist for the last 29 years it wasn’t easy to convince his folks why he had decided to major in fine art at Kenyatta University from where he graduated in 1980.
“My father was particularly not very happy with me choosing to be an artist since he didn’t believe it could be a viable source of livelihood,” he recalls. “But unlike then today parents are very supportive of children who pursue art as a career”.
Like Judy Ogana, Gakunju also bemoans the downscaling of art in the school where it’s no longer an examinable subject.
“This has greatly affected perception, exposure and appreciation of both the arts and the artist,” he laments adding that the lack of a national gallery that would act as the country’s collection point is also a hindrance.
To supplement his sculpting Kuona Trust-based artist does what he calls “utility art” where he churns out creatively designed mwikos (cooking sticks) and sitting benches.
“But the fact that the local music and theatre industry is rapidly picking is a clear indicator that it’s just a matter of time before the visual art scene in Kenya heads for the skies,” he concludes.