With the economic development of East Africa, local artists are stepping into the spotlights. “The East African art scene has rapidly become the third pillar of Africa’s contemporary art arena. We will see more artists from this region surface in the international art scene”, says Willem Kevenaar, who is setting up his Art Consultancy business in Kenya.
Willem Kevenaar has been involved in contemporary art for many years. After having moved to Kenya, he found a local art scene that was developing at high pace. “I was aware of the quality of art from the west and the south of the continent. West Africa with its vibrant and colourful pieces and South African art for the bigger part commenting on the political and social issues. In Kenya, I was stunned by an interesting mix of these elements, with pieces that are lively and executed well, whilst being fully aware of the political and social elements of society.”
Exceeding ‘jumping Maasai’ level
For art collectors, there is a lot to discover in East African art. Kevenaar: “It is not just the number of artists – both self-educated as well as artists with formal education – that is growing. For me, it was an eye opener to see the technical grades, subjects and conceptual approach to issues entirely ‘on par’ with what is made in the 'West'. I have found numerous local artists that succeed in producing art that exceeds the 'jumping Maasai souvenir art' level by far.”
Kevenaar is in the process of building his network of artists and galleries both in East Africa and Europe. To measure the interest of his own network of art lovers, he promoted work of six young Kenyan artists in his home in November. “Hosting functions like this one has confirmed my own professional ‘gut feeling’ about the potential of some of the artists. The event encourages me to continue hosting events like these, that also promote my art consultancy activities, to both first time buyers, collectors and galleries as well as corporate clients in Africa and the west.”
‘Most promising African artist’
Kevenaar is particularly impressed by social criticism of artists like Peter Ngugi and Shabu Mwangi as well as Beatrice Wanjiku. “As a result of modern materials and techniques becoming more available, we see lots of very powerful new work, like laser-scorching art, photography and installations, with Mwini Mutuku’s work as a shining example.”
While the art scene is developing rapidly, challenges remain. Kevenaar found there is a great gap between ‘producing great art’ and ‘getting noticed and sold’. “The road 'from artist to customer’ is still rudimentary and hard to travel. There are also shortages of good materials, such as wood for framing and stretching and good paper. There is also the perception in the west that needs to change – the persistent image of ‘African art’ is incomplete. African art deserves a better and more positive place than it currently gets. It deserves a place at the international art stage.
Spotlight on East Africa
Putting the spotlight on East African art will lead to a growing awareness that not only benefits the arts. Kevenaar: “It also brings a radiating effect within the region. Local art can help African society grow its own values and identity. Art can thus serve as a catalyst for a much larger movement.” The art consultant will keep on building his platform for the East African artists. “Not only because that would mean an injection of energy for them, but because the 'West' can benefit enormously from the ideas and learnings from the art of this emerging region.”