Author: Think Africa Press

Auction signals the continuing rise of Kenya’s sizzling art scene

Last Tuesday night, Nairobi held its first major, international commercial auction of East African art. The auction, organised by the Circle Art Agency, featured 47 works from 43 artists from six countries spanning the last four decades. In terms of sales, it was a huge success, with 90% of the works going for a combined Ksh18.5-million ($216 000).

But in a region long ignored by serious art collectors, and in a city that has mainly catered to foreign art buyers, the auction’s biggest achievement was that over half the works sold to Kenyans. Though that fact is partly a symptom of the ‘Africa Rising’ story of growing middle classes, it also marks an arrival for an unlikely city that has forged a unique modern art history.

“Kenyans like a party”
On the surface, Nairobi is perhaps a surprising art centre as it has little or no art infrastructure. The city has no renowned university art programmes and only two professional galleries, both of which operate in private homes to stay afloat and take tiny percentages so they can keep on board artists who would otherwise sell from their own studios. Kenya more broadly has no art education in government schools or significant public art installations. And beyond a few graffiti artists and political cartoonists, visual art is not on most Kenyans’ radar. The government is so out of touch with local art that it sent Chinese artists to this year’s Venice Biennial to fill the Kenya pavilion.

Yet behind the scenes, Nairobi’s art scene hums with improvised vibrancy. In slums, self-taught artists work in collectives where artists sleep, eat, and create together, pooling profits under the tutelage of an established name. More successful artists share shipping containers as studios. There are showings every week in galleries, private homes, restaurants, and cultural centres, and studios are gathering places for artists, buyers, and hangers-on.

But without a base of buyers who grew up learning about and viewing fine art, groups such as Circle Art have had to be creative in educating and building a market of locals willing to invest in Kenyan art.

“The traditional gallery sort of situation of going to a gallery and running for two or three weeks is not necessarily the best way to bring in a new audience,” says Danda Jaroljmek, director at Circle Art, explaining why they opted for an auction. “Kenyans like a party. By having a big noise, some glamour, a sort of party atmosphere, that’s perhaps a better way of doing it.”

Circle Art gives city art tours to galleries and collectives, and hosts collectors clubs to teach interested Kenyans about the history of local artists. There are ‘M/eat The Artist’ dinner parties in private homes where artists show and sell their work, and most studios are available for walk-ins whereby people can watch the artists in action and buy directly from the source. In Nairobi, art is interactive.

“It’s the story of Kenya,” says artist Gor Soudan (31) from his cramped apartment studio in the city’s Kibera slum. “The government, the banks were not working properly so M-Pesa [a mobile money service] came up to bank the poor people. So that’s the way the art scene is growing. By need and vision.”

Ugandan artist Geoffrey Mukasa's 'Lady in Green' sold for Ksh 563 520. (Pic: Circle Art Agency)
Ugandan artist Geoffrey Mukasa’s ‘Lady in Green’ sold for Ksh 563 520. (Pic: Circle Art Agency)

Soudan, who was featured in the London’s 1:54 fair of contemporary African art last month, weaves human figures using metal wires from tyres burnt in riots. His home is a mini hub for local artists, and within walking distance are two other slum collectives. At one, artists weld scrap metal into sculptures and paint dreamscapes on Chinese-made plastic Muslim prayer mats.

Artist Paul Onditi, whose painting Half Life sold at Tuesday’s auction for Ksh704 400 ($8 200) says the fact that these many artists have little training means they make better art. “Here is a place you get self-taughts and they gamble around,” he says. Onditi is actually one of the few here who has received some formal training, but like his fellow local artists loves to experiment, making paintings by a long process of printing digital pictures and transferring them, through a four step chemical procedure he developed, to antiquated plastic printing press boards that he covers with oil paints.

Paul Onditi's 'Half Life'. (Pic: Circle Art Agency)
Paul Onditi’s ‘Half Life’. (Pic: Circle Art Agency)

Painting politics

Kenya has long been known for its untrained but exciting artists. The ‘naïve’ movement, so called because the untutored artists never studied things like perspective or art history, dominated Nairobi’s scene for decades. Artists such as Sane Wadu, Wanyu Brush, and Jak Katarikawe painted surreal scenes of animals and rural life with expressive colours, and were marketed to foreign buyers as ‘untouched’ modern African artists.

These artists are still revered in Kenya and internationally – a six-panel painting by Wadu sold for Ksh1.5-million ($17 000) on Tuesday – but in the last decade, a new group of contemporary artists have become the big names in Nairobi. This second generation – of Onditi, Soudan, and others – is often just as untrained, but is connected through the internet to global conceptual trends. Notably, these younger artists are more eager to take on political issues now that Kenya’s public space is freer under multi-party democracy.

Peterson Kamwathi's 'Nchi 1 Barcode'. (Pic: Circle Art Agency)
Peterson Kamwathi’s ‘Nchi 1 Barcode’. (Pic: Circle Art Agency)

Nchi 1 Barcode, for example, a woodblock by Peterson Kamwathi that auctioned for Ksh375 680 ($4,400), shows the Kenyan flag next to a barcode, questioning the country’s nationhood. Joseph Bertiers, a former painter of homemade signs, makes Bruegel-esque paintings of partying politicians, one of which, The World’s Craziest Bar, sold for Ksh821 800 ($9 600) on Tuesday. Onditi’s paintings show Nairobi’s congested slums superimposed on slave ships, while Soudan’s sculptures are made literally from the ashes of political violence.

'The World's Craziest Bar' by Joseph Bertiers (Pic: Circle Art Agency)
‘The World’s Craziest Bar’ by Joseph Bertiers. (Pic: Circle Art Agency)

Even Wanyu Brush, an old master known for delicate paintings of safari animals and village folk, has moved to tougher subjects and styles in the last few years, with dark lines, jagged brushstrokes, and starker colours seen in his epic Never, Never, Never Again, painted in the wake of Kenya’s 2007/8 post-election violence.

“What you are your seeing right now is Nairobi being activated,” says Soudan.

Still, many Kenyan buyers avoid such cutting edge, confrontational works, preferring decorative pieces instead. Artist Beatrice Wanjiku, for example, who paints distorted human forms and anguished mouths, was not featured in the auction, while a piece by Richard Kimathi, who paints unsettling blue portraits of child soldiers and gaunt animals, was one of the few under the hammer that did not sell on Tuesday.

It will be fascinating to watch where the new attention pushes Nairobi next. Is there momentum to develop more traditional galleries, or will the city continue with self-taught artists and an informal flair? However things progress, what’s clear is that Nairobi has some very high calibre art, and Nairobians are noticing.

Jason Patinkin for Think Africa Press, where this piece was first published. 

Music, spirituality and Islam in Africa

Zanzibar City, Tanzania

A crowd of young women in burkas and some men gather outside a café in Zanzibar, bewildered by the sight: an African woman, in a West African mumu (kaftan) and covered head, playing Ghazal poetry as an Islamic call to prayer.

Sitting on the café terrace and accompanied by an acoustic guitar, Nawal’s clear voice captivates the audience – until it is broken by the cry of a visibly upset street vendor. “How dare you use the name of Allah in a song?” he shouts.

“You use keyboards in your praise of Allah,” Nawal retorts calmly.

Striking a chord with the community: from sandy Zanzibar to sunny Sudan

In 21st century Zanzibar, as in much of Africa and the Muslim world, music has the power to inflame as it did in ancient Persia when music, mosaics and poetry were created to be ‘nearer to Allah’. And the old divisions – between the more tolerant Sufi branches of Islam, which believe that art and music can be expressions of meditation, and the more conservative branches, which believe devotion should be silent, personal, and contemplative – continue to raise existential questions about the nature of faith and spirituality.

Although there is much disagreement over the role of music or prohibition of it in Islam, Nawal, a practising Muslim from the Comoros islands, is adamant that there is nothing in the Qur’an that forbids singing.

“I sing for my hopes, my values,” she says. “It’s like a communion. I want the public to forget I am an artist. I don’t say ‘Let’s go pray’, I just say ‘God is big, there is nothing that is not God’. So if someone kills me for saying that, they kill me for praising God. I am not here to change people – I am here to shine.”

She continues, “The Western media must show me as I am [and] show Islam as vital, spiritual, productive, subtle and positive – not just extremist.” She recounts a story at an international festival in Belgium when the predominantly Muslim crowd complained and nearly revolted. However, after the gig, she recalls, Turkish, Palestinian, Tuareg and Syrian Muslims – both men and women – came up to her with tears in their eyes, saying they had found her songs moving and profound.

These divergences also reverberate in Sudan, where the vibrant and dynamic musical group Camiraata uses music to address social issues. Far from seeing music as unreligious, the group uses music to bring together families, tribes and clans in Sudan, north to south, to sing their way through serious political and domestic challenges.

Indeed, for many Muslim Sudanese, music is integral to community dispute-resolution, initiation rituals, the unusual and the everyday. Da’Affallah, director of Sudan’s Music and Culture Academy in Khartoum and band member explains, “Music and culture is about understanding. If you know my music, my religion and my culture, you respect me.”

“We never ever stop singing!”, Da’Affallah continues, before breaking into song. “Music in Sudan is absolutely everywhere, and has been for many, many centuries. Music is life in Sudan, from birth to death. When a woman makes tea or coffee in the morning she has a special song [he starts singing]. She has a song and she grinds out the pestle in time as she grinds coffee. Then we have special ‘albaramka’ for tea – this is a group song.”

He demonstrates – and it sounds like Mongolian throat-singing – before continuing, “We sing love songs to our camels because we depend on them. We sing to the desert so it won’t kill us. If we have problems in the community, we bring together everyone to solve the problem, we consult the elders, we talk, we sing, we talk more!”

Facing the music in northern Mali

A couple of thousand miles west of Sudan in Mali, the tensions between contrasting interpretations of the role of music for Muslims was been brought into particularly sharp, and often tragic, focus following the takeover of the north by Islamist militants last year.

Khaïra Arby, looking regal in her striking head wrap and plush blue dress, her face lined and tired, just got off a plane from Mali. “Yes, it’s true, I’ve seen it myself; they will cut off your tongue if you sing,” she says. “I’ve seen friends who’ve had their hands cut off for the ringtones on their mobile phones.”

Arby, adored across Mali, is affectionately called the nightingale of the North. Born in the village of Abaradjou, north of Timbuktu, her parents came from different ethnic backgrounds – her mother Songhai, her father Berber. Arby’s music, which is more popular at home than the music of her internationally famous cousin Salif Keita, captures northern Mali’s diversity of ethnic groups, styles and poetry.

Malian musician Khaïra Arby. (Flickr/Rare Frequency)

After persistent threats and attacks from Islamists militants – including smashing up stereo systems in markets and people’s homes, confiscating radios and even SIM cards with music on them – Arby escaped to Bamako to stay with Salif Keita on his island on the river Niger just outside Mali’s capital of Bamako. Many Malian musicians are among the thousands who fled south since the crisis began.

Keita is also resigned. Before the international intervention against the Islamist rebels, he commented, “If there’s no music, no Timbuktu, it means that there is no more culture in Mali.” Indeed, Timbuktu is regarded as part of a chain of African kingdoms that had a long history of education, literature and intellectual life. It was the site of one of the largest Islamic libraries in Africa and a meeting point for scholars who debated and interpreted the Qur’an.

However, last year the Islamist rebels who took over the towns declared the shrines to be idolatrous and restricted forms of expression, such as music, that had been part of the fundamental fabric of everyday life. Like many Malians, Arby was bewildered. “There’s not a single part of the Qur’an that forbids music,” she says. “I’ve read it all, I can tell you honestly, there’s nothing in there that says don’t sing. I’ve never seen, never, that music is forbidden.”

In fact, Arby is highly sceptical as to the importance of religion at all in the motives of militants. “This war is about drug-running and arms trafficking. It’s about controlling important routes through a very long term trade area. It’s about money, politics and control. It’s not about religion,” she insists.

Cheikh Lo, a Senegalese veteran and arguably the Miles Davis of African music, is also angry about the rebels’ attempts to ban music in northern Mali. Lo is a devout Muslim of the Baye Fall Sufi tradition. “These people misuse the name of Islam,” he says. “They are nothing to do with Islam, they are terrorists and we must have the dirigence [direction or composure] to drive them out.”

Clearly, Africa’s Muslim musicians – from Senegal’s Cheikh Lo to Mali’s Khaïra Arby to Sudan’s Camiraata to Zanzibar’s Nawal – are not about to give in and succumb to pressures against their singing. In fact, to the contrary, they see music as the very means of social change.

“The real musician does not go out to nightclubs, but he stays in the community, and leads to the right way,” says Da’Affallah. “This means peace, unity, understanding, communication.”

Meanwhile Arby states defiantly, “We have an obligation to sing, to dance, to respect, and to show appreciation for the suffering and the endurance and bravery of the people who are fighting for us, for those who cannot sing. We must compose beautiful songs before the war, during the war, and after the war, to celebrate what we have.”

This piece by Thembi Mutch was first published on Think Africa Press.