East African artists are right in the frame when it comes to representing the continent abroad — whether at auctions, in museums or enhancing the growing number of private collections that specialise in contemporary African art.
Currently they are featuring most notably at the Venice Biennale where six of them are showing in a privately sponsored exhibition called Another Country on the island of Guidecca.
Their names also figure prominently in any list of the region’s most sought after painters and sculptors: Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi, Mwangi Hutter (two artists who show as one) Paul Onditi and London-based Arlene Wandera.
Also in Venice are hung the searching paintings of Beatrice Wanjiku, who last year was voted the No 1 artist in a list of the Top Ten African exhibitors at the New York 1.54 art fair.
Fairs frequently feature East African artists.
They include the 1:54 (named after the 54 countries in the continent) also held in London and, next year, in Morocco, plus the wryly-entitled AKAA fair in Paris, standing for Also Known as Africa this year, which showed a number of Ethiopian artists.
Enthusiastic collectors include a mysterious gentleman based in Dubai who has put together an important group of works by the Kenyan Ehoodi Kichape, and the Ugandans Geoffrey Mukasa and Paul Ndema, advised by Danda Jaroljmek, a director of Circle Art Agency of Nairobi. Like many collectors he insists on anonymity, perhaps fearing that his prized possessions will become the targets of international art thieves.
Collectors happy to be known, however, include the Vancouver lawyer Amyn Abdula who has brought together a carefully chosen representative group by Kenyan artists that he shows on a rota basis, while on a larger scale there is the British businessman Robert Devereux (brother–in-law of entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson) who sold off his noted collection of post-war British art to raise funds to set up the African Art Trust to support and promote work from this region.
Important pieces in his collection include charcoal drawings from the seminal Sitting Allowanceseries by Kamwathi.
Devereux’s collection of African art was recently exhibited at a Cambridge college in the UK.
Then there is Robert Loder, who is believed to own around 1,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures from the 1980s and 1990s, which has a book devoted to them, published only last year. Loder helped to set up the Triangle Arts Trust, which sponsors workshops and residencies in 16 African countries.
Another well-known enthusiast for the art of East Africa is the billionaire philanthropist Jochan Zeitz of the Puma footwear firm who is creating what is said to be the world’s largest museum of contemporary African art, on the waterfront at Cape Town.
The London-based property developer Shafraaz Mohamed is typical of a younger generation of enthusiasm about collection for this area’s artistic output.
Just turned 40, and with an eclectic taste, he makes regular buying trips to Kenya and has snapped up work by Kamwathi (charcoal drawings and a Guantanamo Bay woodcut) and vigorous paintings by Kichape and the rising star Shabu Mwangi. They hang alongside choice works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Joan Miro and the British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein.
“They all sit together very comfortably which says something about the quality of East African art,” he told me.
Kamwathi’s name keeps cropping up in any review of East African work abroad. One of the Guantanamo Bay woodcuts, in which he uses queues as metaphors for oppression and suppression, was bought by the British Museum, while other works, including woodcuts from his Bull series, are in the collections of the World Bank and Bates College Museum of Art in Maine.
He has also exhibited widely abroad, including at Bayreuth, Vienna, Venice and the Frost Art Museum in Miami.
Other exhibitors abroad include the Kenyans Michael Soi, Dennis Muraguri (of matatus fame) Jackie Karuti, Ato Malinda and Paul Onditi, plus the Ugandans Ndema and Mukasa while the Sudanese Salah Elmur and the Ethiopians Dawit Abebe and Ephrem Solomon are regulars too.
Meanwhile, Tanzania has become almost typecast by the success of the late auto-didacts George Lilanga and Eduardo Tingatinga’s follower Rajabu Chiwaya.
Lilanga’s humorous paintings of intertwined shetani and colourful sculptures have made him a regular on the London auctions scene, with a strong presence at the annual Bonhams sales, while to Chiwaya — or at least to his memory — went the honour in 2010 of becoming East Africa’s dearest artist at auction with the sale in Paris of his Gold Spotted Leopard, for $51,000 — still a long way from El Anatsui’s recent $950,000 but at least a start.
Bonhams was the scene of a recent Kenyan triumph too when paintings by Anthony Okello, from his brooding Masquerade series, and Joseph Mbatia, known as Bertiers, topped the list of strong sellers.
Works by both artists can be found at the One-Off Gallery in Nairobi, whose director Carol Lees commented, “East African artists have international relevance and although the region’s art is new into the market, it really is as good as any produced anywhere.”
Among others at the forefront of promoting this region’s living artists abroad is Lavinia Calza with her agency ARTLab Africa.
Calza, from her base in the UK, represents such established figures as Kamwathi, Onditi and Wanjiku, plus a number of upcomers like Gor Soudan, Onyis Martin and Longinus Ngala.
Said Calza: “It is wonderful that East African artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve; not simply because they are from a particular region but because their work stands proud on a truly international level.”