Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Kenya Art Fair 2015

This last fortnight has been quite interesting.

I took a week off my studio practice. Lazyism. Secondly, I met a lot of interesting folk and spent a lot of time listening. Especially at the 2nd annual Kenya Art Fair.

The Kenya Art Fair is modeled along the conventional fairs like Frieze, Joburg, 1:54 etc as a platform for artists, curators, galleries, patrons and everyone artsy to congregate and make money; only difference being that in other countries, fairs are highly capitalist and put together by astute business people while this is an initiative of not-for-profit organization, Kuona Trust.

This is a very good initiative – I found myself there all the four days it ran at the Sarit Center. Was good catching up with all folk I’d not seen in a while. I enjoyed the art and liked some stalls more than others. I loved Brush Tu’s booth. It was well thought out and I admire these not-so-young guys’ (Boniface Maina, Michael Musyoka, Wawero Gichuhi, Elias Mungora) energy and vision. I enjoyed Nairobi Bag Factory’s enthusiasm, popularity and ability to professionalize merchandizing. It’s where I’d dump my stuff as I enjoyed the fair - where I was guaranteed a seat as I devoured my take-out lunch and must commend Michael Soi’s hospitality (I won’t mention the Hidden Agenda tab). My favourite stall award went to Samantha Ripa di Meana’s Roots Contemporary. Very chic.

All that art and artists in a single space was really something and without taking away from the organizer’s efforts, I ‘d personally tie a few loose ends in  an attempt to better and professionalize the event.

Firstly, I’d remove the tiny triangular booths and discourage artists from leasing stalls. I must admit this years’ Art Fair was an improvement from last years. The movement between stalls was fluid except when one got to the triangles. They are also very small offering limited display space so most vendors (mainly artists) tried to compensate for that by cramming paintings on every available space. In most reputable fairs, artists have no business renting stalls and space is reserved for invited galleries, highly regarded curators, not-for-profit institutions and educational entities. The two previous fairs could be used as practice and It’d be a good idea for Kuona to think of appointing a fair curator should they pursue the idea of Kenya Art Fair 2016.

The Kenya Art Fair 2015 (Photo Courtesy Anthony Wachira)
Once the idea of sorting out exhibitors is sorted, the organizer should demand a certain set of standards from every space. This can be summed up by Roots Contemporary. Every artist or gallery has a tonne of work in their studio or vault – you don’t have to hang all of it during an event. Roots had a minimalist approach showing works by 6 artists in a well thought out presentation. They gave just a little bit and it made the audience want more. Everything was professionally done – the texts, the labels, the catalogues. Every thing. It’s a stall that could stand out in any fair globally. They had prepared! The thing with most artist-ran stalls is that they thought/believed the organizer was going to bring in a lot of buyers and had a lot of items on sale that they totally forgot to well prepare their spaces. I was abit let down by some reputable outfits that had spaces you’d grade as ‘below average.’ This is supposed to be Kenya’s Premier Fair for Modern & Contemporary Art.

I was somewhat disappointed when Roots Contemporary didn’t scoop the award of the best stall… But I have this strong feeling a lot of people learnt a thing or two from them about presentation and that half the stalls at the next Kenya Art fair will want to be like that, which is a good thing. No?

The Wasanii Exhibition (Photo courtesy Anthony Wachira)
The fairs strongest segment was the Wasanii Exhibition, a mixed bag of artists who submitted work for selection. Some of the work was really good and generally the show was visually appealing. If stalls are taken away from artists, this exhibition may become stronger since artists save what they perceive to be their ‘best works’ for their stalls. Also it’d deal with duplication of an artist having a stall showing their work and also exhibiting in the main exhibition. Wasanii exhibition would be a good platform to ‘discover’ and award one of these young fellas. A ‘small’ cheque and a title with a nice ring to it - something like “Most Promising Artist” would go a long way in validating a young artist’s practice.

My favourite segment was the talks though. It was quite interesting to note that there was a huge presence of newish artists who were very curious and clearly want a stake in this burgeoning art scene. Artist who, rather than sit and wait, are doing things for themselves.  What do we have to offer them though? I didn’t sit in all talks but was quite a shame that most mid-level and established artists missed the ones I sat in. Some because they had to run their stalls and some probably disinterest. This disinterest is one of the reasons artists don’t collaborate in such ventures as this. A lot of local artists have been to major fairs and biennales and have info that could add value to an event like this. Why do they instead become passive participants or give it a wide berth?

How African Contemporary Art Fits Into The Global Art Trends (Photo Courtesy Anthony Wachira)
 All in all, it is good to see another new event to look forward to and alongside other consistent annual art fixtures like the Godown Art Center’s Manjano Art Exhibition & Competition and Circle Art Agency’s Modern & Contemporary Art Auction should be supported. It was also flattering to have a whole posse of Ugandan artists who drove to Nairobi just for the Art Fair. Kenyans should borrow a leaf from that.

Different folk will have different opinions of how it was. How it should be. Or the direction it should take. But everyone agrees  this event is vital. A little work needs to be done for it to live up to its tag line and for it to highly achieve the general objective of all art fairs. ‘We’ must raise the standards without being elite and locking out people. But it all depends on everyone’s goodwill. This way, we shall find all the artists we consider ‘important Kenyan artists’ showing at the fair and have all reputable art institutions committed to it.

 It’d be good to one day mention the Kenyan Art Fair in the same breath as Frieze. And Joburg. Art Basel. India Art Fair. ArtRio. Art Miami… Long shot but attainable.

Finally, congrats Kuona Trust, but don’t rest on your laurels! For everyone else remotely associated with The Kenya Art Fair, we have our work cut out for us.


  1. Very fair analysis. Let's make Kenya Art fair work


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