The African renaissance in Kenyan art


Omosh Kindeh stands next to his diptych (two-panelled) painting Dystopia that won first prize and Sh300,000 last Thursday at the annual Manjano Nairobi County Visual Art Exhibition.

The spirit of the African Renaissance is alive and well in Nairobi where visual arts are thriving and on display all over town.

Everywhere from Nairobi National Museum to Village Market to Paa ya Paa Art Centre, exhibition halls are full to overflowing with contemporary Kenyan art.

And from the Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institute in the city centre to Le Rustique and Osteria Restaurants to OneOff and Banana Hill Art Galleries, more intimate exhibitions of either solo or duo sets of artists’ work are up for viewing.

Nairobi National Museum under the direction of its curator, Lydia Galavu, has been transformed into one of the most vibrant venues for the visual arts.

Currently, two exhibitions are notable – one untitled and teaming with Kenyan art specially selected by patrons prepared to take the works abroad in a few weeks’ time; the other of elegant black and white woodcut and lithographic prints prepared by modernist Mexican artists, a joint project between the Mexican embassy and the Museum.

The other remarkable assemblage of contemporary Kenyan art specifically by Nairobi-based artists has been organised by the GoDown Art Centre to be viewed through next week at the Village Market.

Named Manjano in 2010 when the first Nairobi Province (now County) Annual Visual Art Exhibition was organised as a joint venture by the ministry of Culture and the GoDown, this third Manjano show has been “incentivised” according to the Art Centre MD Joy Mboya who’s managed to attract donor support two years running to provide attractive cash prizes for adjudicated art.

Last year it was a clear-cut case for judges Liza MacKay of ISK and Carol Lees of OneOff Gallery: Samuel Githui won the Sh300,000 first prize for his art in the professionals category while Alex Mbevo received the Sh50,000 first prize in the student category.

This year, it wasn’t quite so easy for the judges to pick prize-winning works, according to Maggie Otieno of the Arterial Network and Sandeep Desai, an avid East African art collector.

“Manjano has the potential to become the most important art competition in Kenya, but the artists will have to take the competition more seriously in future before it can live up to its potential,” remarked Desai who also adjudicated with Fiona Fox, formerly of the Tate Modern in London.

Perhaps it was because the GoDown gave Nairobi artists too short a notice of the submission deadline this year that caused fewer art networks to be represented this time round.

In any case from the almost 200 artworks submitted by both students and so-called professional artists this year, almost half were rejected by the judges.

Among those now on show at the Village Market since last Thursday, the winning works are tied in my mind to several outstanding pieces that didn’t win a cash prize.

First prize of Sh300,000 went to Omosh Kindeh for his diptych Dystopia, a pair of paintings offering a stark reminder of how congested Nairobi has become.

The second prize of Sh150,000 went to Michael Soi for one of his notoriously naughty Ladies of the Night series.

Reflecting the challenge the judges must have had, two artists tied for third place: Dennis Muraguri for his picturesque woodcut print of life in Nairobi and Paul Inditi for his stunning semi-abstract painting.

(Both winners are currently in exhibitions: Muraguri’s Matatu Art at Le Rustique until February 22 and Inditi’s with Gor Soudan at Alliance Francaise in a striking display of black, white and grey paintings through this weekend.)

If I had been a judge, I would have also been torn between artworks by Samuel Githui and Patrick Mukabi among others whom I feel merited at least an honourable mention.

Other art centres exhibiting regional and local artists include Banana Hill Art Gallery where the Tanzanian painter Thobias Minzi’s one-man show dubbed Prospects of African Life opened on Saturday through March 2, meanwhile at OneOff Gallery, Beatrice Njoroge’s exhibition of new art is up through the 22nd.

Restaurants have also been mounting exhibitions more consistently.

At Osteria in Karen, Patrick Kinuthia’s multi-coloured semi-impressionist portraits of regional beauties is on show through February; while Le Rustique regularly mounts contemporary Kenyan art exhibitions.

So if anyone’s in doubt that an African Renaissance is under way in Kenya, just check out the Nairobi art scene for yourself.