It has been over 50 years since the idea of the National Art Gallery of Kenya (Nagok) was first brought up, and there finally seems to be hope for its realization.
As a forerunner in the creation of the gallery, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) is currently hosting an exhibition at the Nairobi museum called Kesho Kutwa (the day after tomorrow), until October 15.
This exhibit is a preview of what to expect once Nagok is established and open to the public. “A combination of works of art from Kenya’s best contemporary artists and historically significant pieces from NMK’s permanent collection,” said Kibunjia Mzalendo, Managing Director of NMK, at the opening of the exhibition.
A photo from the exhibition shows the long timeline of the project. Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s late Second Vice President and great supporter of the arts, introduced the idea of a state gallery in the 1960s. His extensive collection of African art, cultural objects, books, cards and stamps, kept at the National Archives of Kenya, is arguably the largest assemblage of an African.
In the 1970s, the National Archives building in Nairobi was proposed to house a national art gallery, an idea supported by Sisi kwa Sisi artists and then a group of indigenous Kenyan artists. But a change in political priorities killed the idea and the artists dissolved.
The project is dead too. There was not much government-led or supported art activity in the 1980s and 1990s, although local galleries, art collectives, and donor-run businesses kept the creative scene alive. In 2006, there was another unsuccessful attempt to establish a national gallery dedicated to Kenyan art.
It was not until 2018 that the Nagok task force was officially formed and the first workshop was held in 2019, bringing together a range of visual arts actors. Although Covid-19 disrupted project planning in 2020, the Nagok committee now hopes to present a memo before the end of this year.
Kesho Kutwa is a well-curated exhibition with spectacular works of art by five contemporary artists: Peterson Kamwathi is one of Kenya’s most exciting second generation artists.
Working across a wide range of media, Kamwathi’s highly symbolic art tends to revisit socio-political themes. His Kesho Kutwa paintings of men carrying children on their shoulders or of individuals performing acrobatic stunts explore individual and collective circumstances.
A low-key but deep person, Michael Wafula is not seen much in the public arena but works quietly with a small group of artists. His brightly colored abstract paintings are eye-catching at first, then a longer look reveals much more. Wafula applies several coats of paint and then scratches carefully to expose numerous symbols that keep the viewer staring for a long time.
Beatrice Wanjiku’s lively personality belies a deep thought process that produces figurative images in a raw, penetrating, somewhat somber style. His grim illustrations of rib cage torsos at Kesho Kutwa speak of the “elimination of diapers by” the Covid pandemic.
By Peter ‘Ghose’ Ngugi, a remarkable self-taught artist, are larger-than-life portraits of elegantly dressed people. His silhouettes with faceless and faceless gestures, animated and surrounded by African fabric patterns have a captivating familiarity with them.
At first, Dennis Muraguri’s large, colorful matatu art scenes look like ordinary paintings, but they are in fact woodcuts, produced in a long and intense process. Working on wooden blocks, he cuts out vehicles, people and buildings and paints them meticulously.
Kesho Kutwa also features Kenyan artifacts from thousands of years ago. Miniature pottery figurines of cattle, discovered in the Turkana Basin and dated to around 4000 BC.
A rich collection of prehistoric artefacts, rock art and traditional artefacts is housed at the NMK, which suffers from inadequate exhibition space, which contributes to poor public awareness.
Compiling, organizing and exhibiting the history of visual arts in Kenya is one of Nagok’s goals.
The proposed facility will include a visual arts education center for young people.