When I was a kid, Christmas was more a day than a season. At home, we didn’t put up the decorations till Christmas Eve. But now it’s a long season for buying. I already see banners slung across Nairobi roads advertising various Christmas bazaars. So I think I will not be out of order recommending a Christmas present.
It is the Kenya Arts Diary 2020. In fact, it’s the 10th anniversary edition of this excellent initiative – the brainchild of Nani Croze, the founder of Kitengela Glass and Research Trust. Since 2011, it has been a beautifully illustrated series, presenting new and established artists from Kenya and the region, as well as the country’s art centres and galleries.
I reckon this latest diary is the best of the series. It features 71 artists, 26 art galleries, 19 cultural centres, and five restaurant galleries. Of the latter, sadly, Purdy Arms has gone, but the number is still correct if we include the new Collective Restaurant in Utalii Street of Nairobi.
These figures are indicative of a thriving arts scene in Kenya. And, as Nani Croze’s Forward says, this edition breaks away somewhat from the usual focus on new works by mainly up-and-coming young Kenyan and East African artists. It also features some of established artists who have helped so much to build this burgeoning situation.
Two of these are favourites of mine, and I am fortunate in having a few of their works. There is Kioko Mwitiki, the best known of our creators of recycled metal sculptures. The short profile in the diary lists some of his achievements – having travelled the world in mounting exhibitions and training artists. Here, near the Lavington Mall, he has opened the exciting Kioko Mwitiki Art Gallery.
The wit that is embedded in Kioko Mwitiki’s name is also expressed so clearly in his sculptures. And wit is there in abundance in the paintings and metal sculptures of Joseph Bertiers Mbatia. When I first met him – it must have been something like twenty years ago – I asked him why he was signing his paintings with the European name, Bertiers. ‘Because people don’t take African artists seriously,’ he said. I don’t think he would say that now.
Let me mention some of the newcomers who have caught my eye. There is Adam Massava, a painter who grew up in the Mukuru kwa Njenga slum, where he paints from his studio at the Mukuru Arts Club, which he set up. His featured work in the diary is a realistic daily-life scene of Kibera.
There is a powerful painting of Lake Victoria fishermen by Arnold Jaoko from Kisumu; a delicate painting of a pollinating bee by David Roberts, who was raised on the shore of Lake Baringo; a colourful depiction of a fruit and vegetable market by Evans Yegon, aka Yegonizer, from Bomet; an ingenious crab made out of a tin can and bottle tops made by Isaac Moyo from Bungoma; an intriguing pen and ink drawing of a face by Patti Endo, born of African and Japanese parents.
Nani Croze pays tribute to what she calls ‘pioneering art spaces’ such as Paa ya Paa, Gallery Watatu, the Nairobi National Museum, One Off, RaMoMa, and African Heritage, which have done so much in promoting the arts in Kenya. She also celebrates the recent proliferation of art centres, galleries and artists’ collectives – some of them mentioned in this piece – that are such an encouraging sign of not only growth but also success.
It is a pleasure to have such a diary on your desk throughout the year; each week you have a double page spread, with a profile of an artist and an example of their work. You can find the diary at the main bookshops and stationers. And, of course, you can enjoy a visit to the magical Kitengela Glass in order to pick it up.