As East African art gains global acclaim, at home, it’s another story

7 mins read
Artist Peterson Kamwathi sits at his studio at the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, where many artists maintain their studios.

East African artists are gaining more international recognition, but in their home countries, many have to fight against a variety of hurdles in order to live their dream of being a recognized artist.

Nairobi (dpa) – Across Munich, posters advertise the Haus der Kunst’s exhibition of British-Kenyan artist Michael Armitage’s works, inviting people to the imposing building to see “Paradise Edict.”

In Kenya, however, things are different. Art institutions there maintain more of a low profile, and Kenya’s cultural heritage is not easily accessible, says Armitage, who has rapidly become one of the most exciting young contemporary painters on the international scene.

British-Kenyan artist Michael Armitage poses in front of his work. He’s one of the most exciting contemporary artists at the moment.

As an up-and-coming artist, he says, “you cannot learn and understand whose footsteps you’re walking in.”

In Nairobi, the only state institutions are the old-fashioned Nairobi Gallery, where artifacts on show are catching dust, and the National Museum, which hosts art exhibitions from time to time.

Arist Peterson Kamwathi sits at his studio at the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, where many artists maintain their studios.

“To not recognize the history and the fact that there is an art history from the region, whether that’s in Kenya or outside of it, is a huge disservice and not the truth of our situation,” Armitage says.

The painting “Mkokoteni” by British-Kenyan artist Michael Armitage is seen here. While international acclaim for East African art is growing, at home, it’s a different story.

Armitage and the Haus der Kunst want to change that. “Paradise Edict” shows Armitage’s works alongside those of older eastern African artists who influenced the painter – a rarity in solo exhibitions.

“We can’t say we are representing a whole history,” says Andrea Lissoni, artistic director of the museum. “But the history is strong, and what we can do is to give the artists this space.”

It was important for Armitage to show who influenced him.

“I wouldn’t be a painter and artist without these guys. They’re the foundation of how I built my thinking,” he says.

Internationally speaking, contemporary African art is increasingly gaining the recognition and attention it rightfully deserves.

The South African artist William Kentridge, with his large-scale multimedia works, has been a favourite of the global art scene for a long time. Recently, the works of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui were shown at the Haus der Kunst, and more eastern African artists are gaining attention, such as Peterson Kamwathi and Wangechi Mutu.

This development has been fuelled in part by the 2017 opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town, which exhibits the collection of Jochen Zeitz, the former chairman of Puma.

But that’s not enough to cause a lasting transformation. Galleries and collectors are “important and transformative,” says Peterson Kamwathi, who’s been an artist for almost two decades, earning international renown especially for his political works.

“But we can’t continue to look to the West for infrastructural support.” The reach of private institutions is also limited, he says.

Many African artists face significant hurdles in their home countries, ranging from a lack of cultural institutions and financial resources, to social exclusion and political repression.

The studio of artist Peterson Kamwathi at the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, where many artists maintain their studios.

“The place of culture and art is at the periphery” of Kenyan society, says Kamwathi.

Emmaus Kimani, who belongs to a younger generation, is also struggling with the lack of recognition. “People don’t think that art is a career or a way of life,” he says, adding that for a long time, he could not tell his parents he wanted to be an artist.

Artist Emmaus Kimani sits at the artist collective BrushTu in Nairobi. The collective involves multiple artists who work in the same studio.

Due to the lack of support from the top, it is coming more and more from the bottom – for instance, from collectives like BrushTu. Twelve artists are part of the collective and share a studio and exhibition space. “Collectively we take care of each other,” Kimani says.

The Nairobi collective offers exhibitions and education opportunities, and is a driving force when it comes to raising awareness about the contemporary art scene.

“This is the most important and impactful thing the Nairobi art scene has,” Kimani says. “It would be difficult to survive otherwise.”

Artist Emmaus Kimani sits at the artist collective BrushTu in Nairobi. The collective involves multiple artists who work in the same studio.

The change needs to happen in the public space – first and foremost in education. There is still a lot to do in Kenya and eastern Africa despite the rising international attention, says Kamwathi.

Armitage wants to support fellow artists with his own institute, the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI). The NCAI comprises an exhibition space, a library, an archive and different programs to promote art and conserve eastern Africa’s artistic heritage.

“There is really not yet enough shared knowledge about the region,” Lissoni of Munich’s Haus der Kunst says. “There is a world that doesn’t need to be ‘discovered’ but needs to be acknowledged.”

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