A man I consider quite wise once suggested that the key to one’s future was knowledge of their past. My interpretation of this was that history is very important. I guess that’s where my fascination with history started.
History and Kenyan art/artists are strange bed fellows!
Three Sundays ago, we had an exhibition opening at One-Off Gallery with Ehoodi Kichapi, Harrison Mburu and Michael Soi. On the same day, the elder Soi, Michael’s father - Ancent Soi was having an opening at the Nairobi Gallery in downtown Nairobi. That was a great coincidence. I have always tried to get the son show with the father in the same space alongside other father-son possibilities like John Kamicha-Zacharia Mbutha, Anthony/Jackson Wanjau-Samuel Wanjau, Lucas Sande-Jak Katarikawe… This would not only be sentimental but would also raise the magic question. When did this whole Kenyan Art thing start? Who were the pioneers? What did they do? How does this affect the present scenario?
While helping with a text that was to trace the origins of Contemporary Art in Kenya, I realized that lack of documentary evidence and the will to do a comprehensive research had led to serious distortions of what is supposed to be history of Kenyan art. Most Kenyan art connoisseurs have an art history knowledge that selectively goes up to the birth of Kuona Trust in 1995. Strangely, they were all involved in the conceptualization and set up then they let other people manage it! Some can vaguely reference the seventies when Gallery Watatu was started but can only recall the last ten years of its peak (1985-1996 under Ruth Schaffner).
The arts scene pre-Watatu is the vaguest! Most of what is loosely referred to as the ‘1st Generation Kenyan Art’ actually attest to launching their careers at Watatu. So what was happening before Jony, David & Hart started it?
Quite a number of elderly creatives have stories about creating art pre-independence. It comes in different versions as it gets distorted every time it’s shared verbally. Some seem real. Some fictional. Evidence has been traced in some. While some have turned out to be myths - to make the story more juicy so as to satisfy the hunger created by demand of naïve African art in western museums.
However, a handful are quite coherent and have remained cast in stone for over fifty, maybe sixty years. The story of collagist Rosemary Karuga; born in Meru 1928 and graduated from Makerere (around) 1952 then went on to a long teaching career. Of Elimo & Philda Njau (of the Chemi Chemi Creative Arts & Paa Ya Paa in 1965 to date), Jak Katarikawe, Francis Nnagenda, Samuel Wanjau, Gregory Maloba (who started the Kenyatta University Art Department in 1965) and the extraordinary and ever consistent Ancent Soi – he of the Munich Olympics Poster of 1972.
Soi (the elder) is the typical self taught and resilient pre-independence artist who remained relevant post-independence and is still showing into the (not so) new millenium. Young lazy artists should learn from him!
Born in 1937, he started selling woodcarvings and paintings by mostly Tanzanian and Congolese artists for a politician friend in early sixties before venturing into art himself through tutelage of Congolese Banto, who he says was the best artist in Kenya then (sic).
Previous interviews suggest that the city market and the University of Nairobi were probably the only places practicing artists would show their work then. It was around this time that he entered a painting in the ESSO Calender completion judged by Joseph Murumbi and he won the first prize. His work was also included in the calendar. That is what marked the beginning of his long partnership with the African Heritage. (Source – African Heritage)
Soi’s career continued to flourish at the time when most African countries were getting independence and with the Munich Olympics (1972) approaching, Africans were allowed to participate in a competition to make the event’s poster. As fate would have it, Soi won the first prize (1971)! This got him worldwide acclaim as Kenya’s (and probably one of Africa’s) most talented artist.
Rumour has it that he was offered a lucrative residency in Munich in 1972 but cut it short to come back home for the birth of his first son towards the end of the year. That son is artist Michael Soi.
Through the seventies to the nineties, there was an influx of spaces showing and selling art – Paa Ya Paa, Gallery Watatu, African Heritage, French Cultural Centre, Goethe Intitute…
This came with a lot of global attention for art perceived as Kenyan and with it came a new generartion of post independent Kenyan artists. With the new demands, most old boys of Kenyan art slowed down with age. But not Ancent.
While artists like Joel Oswaggo, Dianga, Samuel Wanjau, Francis Kahuri, Elimo Njau, Rosemary Karuga, Jak Katarikawe, Morris Foit (and some not mentioned) are vanguards, we must salute the Godfather of Kenyan Art. He was never a celebrity. He was never cool. But after all is said and done, he was there when it all started and is still doing it – almost sixty years on!
His long career has made him probably Kenya’s most important artist.
The show at the Nairobi Gallery is good but I wish (me and wishes!) we could honour Ancent Soi with a good well curated retrospective without all other artefacts. Just his work. His story. And the respect he deserves. So that we can all listen to hisStory. To help us know where we came from as that may give us a clue to where we’re going. While giving us a chance to write/edit our history.
In other places, they treasure their own. And they remind everyone that seems to forget how important they are. South Africa has Gerard Sekoto, Zimbabwe has Thomas Mukarogbwa, Spain has Valesquez/Picasso, Italy has Michelangelo, Namibia has John Muafangejo… Kenya has Ancent Soi!