People in other countries more often consume the market of contemporary African art than Africans themselves.
Take for example the country of Kenya, in East Africa. You will not find framed, original African paintings in most citizens' homes. Furthermore, Kenyans often do not see African art as an official product, and surely do not view it as valuable now or gaining value over a lifetime. It is unfortunate that in Kenya and Africa as a whole, artists are abundant and their paintings very beautiful, but the public citizen does not recognize their talents. Why is this?
It is partly due to the poor economy. People just don't have the luxury to spend money on things that are not there for their survival. Money goes to food, shelter, transportation, electricity bills, and clothing, not to less needed things like home decor and certainly not to these aesthetics that are more than what they can afford, as most live on just a few dollars a day.
Take for instance the wildlife in Kenya. The country's landscape is filled with beautiful and increasingly rare wild animals like elephants, giraffes, and packs of lions. Many Kenyans living in the urban areas just cannot afford to go outside their local area on a vacation to a far away game reserve where wildlife reign. They know about it, but just can't spend a vacation there, and thus cannot appreciate the beauty of wildlife first hand in its natural setting. So for those artists who paint wildlife, there is just not interest in their work from Kenyans, since they have often never experienced a wild animal's presence and majesty first hand.
Another main reason Kenyans do not consume much of their own art is a lack of appreciation for and basic ignorance of arts in general. Their government does not promote arts in elementary schools and later on in terms of grants or scholarships to College. Even in many of their museums, art is scarce and not well collected. This leaves the few Kenyans that are masters of African art to market it for themselves. They alone are just not capable of reaching the whole country audience in order to sway and spawn their opinion. Also, for Kenyans, their culture is their culture. They live it everyday. So to see a painting of a Maasai tribesman or a painting of a village scene, since Kenya is the subject matter, and Kenyans live in these settings for a lifetime, the subjects that an artist might paint about their country is not so special or new to them.
To visitors from outside their county, however, these art subjects and more are quite a delightful keepsake and adored meaningfully.
Therefore, for Kenyan artists, in order to make a living, the market and customer base has to go to visitors and tourists. Galleries, shops, exhibitions, and online websites are full of their paintings. And they are beautiful paintings that sell and are loved. Visitors to the country support the economy of Kenya's art circle, appreciating both the abstract and realistic work of its varied artists. There are even markets in various locations in Nairobi, Kenya's capital city, that devote specific days of the week to selling pieces of art and artifacts. Visitors flock to these sites. Recognition and establishment of the art community in Kenya, supported by outsiders, is so strong that experienced artists sometimes go themselves for exhibitions outside of Kenya, rather than inside the country. When they do, clients see not only their great talent, but want to investigate more African artists with such a gift that paint what it is they love about Africa.
Although many Kenyans do not buy art as a whole, there is still hope and signs that they will in the near future. Attendance at exhibitions is growing and is thus an indicator that the number of Kenya art lovers is increasing by the day. Awareness of Kenya's galleries and exhibitions are circulating and the media is doing stories on the country's artists. But what needs to change is the realization that spending money on art is worthwhile in that it provides a beautiful addition to one's home and really promotes not only the country's artists, but the Kenyan culture itself!
Is this needed change attainable for Kenyans as a whole? We think so. Kenyans are naturally proud of their heritage, so if it can be transformed into buying their own cultural art, than all the better.
Culture is dynamic, with new preferences coming up in this modern age daily. Kenya is a client for this kind of on the whim changes. Also, with a new government wanted in the elections of 2012 and a new generation of adults who are exposed to much more of the world than their parents, Kenya and the rest of Africa is undergoing significant and sweeping changes. The field of art could get caught in this momentum.
The good news is that art has been and will continue to be created by those who dare to express their creativity in hopes of awareness and a lifestyle. Artists in the country also are increasing the number of their African artworks, partly due to the tourist and overseas demand. They seem to be more driven than ever to make their art be seen and its message to be heard. They are indeed a force to be reckoned with! The passion with which an artist paints and promotes their piece is the kind of passion that potential art lovers should have when selecting it.
But that is the future. How do Kenyan African artists stay afloat at present? At the moment artists can authoritatively state that African art paintings have, through time, become a sub-culture that has a following that is slowly but constantly increasing. If the current trend continues, an even larger population of art lovers would emerge in country, across the continent and abroad.
What the citizens of Kenya ought not to do is have artists do their works and just let them be at the mercy of the tourist dollar only. Those in country, and those abroad, with genuine interest in African art paintings should extend their interest towards building a strong and formidable network that will eventually see the industry step its foot on the ground and declare that art has eventually trounced despite the many hurdles it had to pass through. Then and only then will the world that is gradually waking up to the quality and quantity of African paintings see this art as it is, a formable and powerful culture force that has its roots in the most basic and oldest traditions of humanity.
- Edwin Omondi