BY KARI MUTU
It has been more than 50 years since the idea of the National Art Gallery of Kenya (Nagok) was first discussed, and finally there seems to be hope for its realization.
As a precursor to the founding of the gallery, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) are currently holding an exhibition called Kesho Kutwa (the day after tomorrow) at the Nairobi Museum, which will run until October 15.
This exhibit is an indication of what to expect once Nagok is established and open to the public. “A combination of works of art by the best contemporary artists in Kenya and historically significant pieces from the NMK’s permanent collection,” said Kibunjia Mzalendo, Director General of the NMK, at the opening of the exhibition.
An illustrated book in the exhibition shows the long period of the project. Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s late second vice president and great patron of the arts, introduced the idea of a state gallery in the 1960s. His huge collection of African art, cultural objects, books, maps and postage stamps, which is kept in the Kenyan National Archives, is arguably the largest collection of any African.
In the 1970s, the Nairobi National Archives building was proposed to house a national art gallery, an idea supported by Sisi kwa Sisi artists, then a group of indigenous Kenyan artists. But a change in political priorities broke the idea and the artists broke up.
The project also died. There was not much government-led or supported artistic activity in the 1980s and 1990s, although local galleries, art collectives, and funder-driven companies kept the creative scene active. In 2006 the attempt to found a national gallery dedicated to Kenyan art failed again.
The Nagok working group was officially founded in 2018 and the first workshop took place in 2019, in which a number of actors from the visual arts took part. Although Covid-19 disrupted project planning in 2020, the Nagok Committee now hopes to be able to present a cabinet note this year.
Kesho Kutwa is a well-curated exhibition of spectacular artwork by five contemporary artists: Peterson Kamwathi is one of the most exciting second generation Kenyan artists.
Kamwathi’s highly symbolic art works in a variety of media and tends to address socio-political issues. His Kesho Kutwa paintings of men carrying children on their shoulders or individuals performing acrobatic stunts explore individual and collective circumstances.
As a reserved but profound person, Michael Wafula is not seen much in public, but works quietly with a small group of artists. His colorful abstract paintings catch the eye at first, then a longer look reveals a lot more. Wafula applies several coats of paint and carefully scratches them away to reveal numerous symbols that stare at the viewer for a long time.
Stripping off layers
The lively personality of Beatrice Wanjiku belies a deep thought process that produces figurative images in a raw, penetrating, somewhat dark manner. Her shadowy illustrations of chest torsos in Kesho Kutwa are about the “stripping of layers by” the Covid pandemic.
There are some larger-than-life portraits of smartly dressed people by Peter ‘Ghose’ Ngugi, a notable self-taught artist. His silhouette figures with faceless, animated gestures and surrounded by African fabric patterns have a captivating familiarity.
The large, colorful Matatu art scenes by Dennis Muraguri initially look like normal paintings, but are in reality woodcuts that were created in a long and intensive process. He cuts the vehicles, people and buildings out of wooden blocks and then paints them meticulously.
Kesho Kutwa also features Kenyan artifacts thousands of years ago. On display are miniature ceramic figures of cattle that were discovered in the Turkana Basin and date back to around 4,000 BC. To be dated.
The NMK houses a rich collection of prehistoric objects, rock art and traditional objects that suffer from insufficient exhibition space, which contributes to poor public awareness.
The compilation, curation and exhibition of the history of the fine arts of Kenya is one of the goals of Nagok.
The proposed facility will have a children’s visual arts education center for the youth.