NAIROBI — Contemporary art in Kenya is facing challenges. Art education in schools is lacking, and the art market, dominated by tourists and expatriates, tends to stifle experimentation. Despite this, two young artists are producing innovative work, encouraged by an unusual art gallery.
At the Kuona Trust, a visual arts center in a Nairobi suburb, artists work out of converted shipping containers.
Kuona's mission is to provide opportunities for its artists to produce world-class art in Kenya.
"Selling is a really big problem for artists here," noted Slyvia Gichia, the director of the Kuona Trust. "We don't have a very informed audience in the local scene, unless we're talking about expats or we're talking about tourists coming, so what tends to happen is a lot of artists start to create work for the tourist market, versus just contemporary art."
Kuona is encouraging experimentation. Its gallery currently features the conceptual work of Maryann Muthoni. "As much as we love being in our own studio comfort zones creating, I think we should also have a role in society," Muthoni said.
Muthoni's exhibit is called the Women's Vote. It addresses the role of Kenyan women in the electoral process and in the country's leadership.
Young Kenyan artists are largely self-taught. Art was dropped from the curriculum in Kenyan schools nearly 10 years ago.
Renee Mboya is a program coordinator at Kuona, she says that had an impact on young artists. "They come from a more informal background, so mostly artists that have worked previously in 3D and have hardly been exposed to what we consider traditional art, you know, painting on canvas," explained Mboya.
Cyrus Kabiru, a sculptor and painter, grew up making sculptures of eyeglasses from things he found around the house. "I was a bad example in the community," said Kabiru. "They used to tell the kids, like my cousins, study hard, or else you'll be like Cyrus!"
Kabiru's sculptures, called "C-STUNNERS," have won international attention. This year, he was selected as a TED Global Fellow. The program brings together young innovators from around the world.
On a recent trip to meet British collectors and museum curators, he says he met a Kenyan politician who knew little about Kenyan art and he also met some students.
"[The students] just shouted, 'Oh I know this guy! Oh he made this this and this!' But they don't know the politician. So I feel like…I am headed somewhere."
Slowly, young visual artists in Kenya are making progress in gaining a local audience.