Swings and roundabouts at annual Kenya art fair

New work by one of Kenya’s finest if most reclusive artists is on show this weekend.

Two sculptures by Otieno Kota are among highlights of the Kenya Art Fair, which runs from November 13-15.

The two pieces, Imagine and Rebirth are being shown by William Ndwiga’s Little Art Gallery in the exhibition hall of the Sarit Centre in Westlands, Nairobi.

Loosely figurative, the two pieces are made of a patchwork of rusted tin sheet, the quizzical face of Imagine highlighted with applied brass eyes and in Rebirth, a small head carved from jacaranda snuggles within the womb.

They examine man’s need to redefine and reposition himself within the context of an increasingly hostile society.

In this, they are a logical development of much of Kota’s previous work, including panels made of tin sheets sewn together with wire and a series of two-dimensional heads woven from wool and cotton scraps.

Like many a Kenyan artist, his work sells strongly abroad, less certainly at home, which inevitably means many of his finest pieces leave the country.

Is this a case where the National Museums should step in, to fulfill one of its key roles — protecting and preserving the nation’s heritage?

Ndwiga is also offering paintings by the well-established Anne Mwiti, who on this evidence seems to have moved on from her love for the nervous line of Egon Schiele and is now at the start of a promising flirtation with Joan Miro here in Modern Family 2 is a dazzle of small figures in strong colours reduced to cyphers and dancing on a soft indigo background.

Paintings by Martin Kamuyu, Patrick Kinuthia, and the Ugandan Colin Sekajugo are also being offered.

And if you like Ugandan art, usually founded on strong draughtsmanship thanks to formal training from primary school onwards, you will be pleased to discover that Afriart Gallery from Kampala is making its first visit to the fair, now in its second year. House artists including Eria Nsubuga and Ngula Yusuf are being promoted there.

The organisers — the Kuona Trust Arts Centre — claim the fair has something for everyone, so if you do not like the roundabouts, just move to the swings.

In addition to the 45 stands for galleries, universities, art centres and individual artists (the printmaker John Silver and painter Zihan Kassam, for instance) there is a selling exhibition of more than 200 paintings, sculptures, prints and photographs plus fora for two-hour talk, talk, talk sessions by artists, collectors and gallery owners with the audience invited to join in.

Should the excitement prove too great the Sarit food court is just outside the entrance to the exhibition hall.

Also showing at the fair will be Circle Art Gallery, whose Jepkorir Kiptum has curated paintings by excellent young artists like Sidney Mang’ong’o, Mbuthia Maina and members of the Maasai Mbili collective.

Circle staff are still on a roll from their third annual auction held last week at a Nairobi hotel. They increased revenue for the third successive year with total sales of Ksh19.6 million compared with Ksh18.7 million last year, and Ksh18.5 million in 2013.

Success came to some extent thanks to a sliding shilling with the comparative figures in dollars, corrected for the difference in the exchange rate year on year, being $192,156 (at Ksh102 to the dollar) this year, against $207,777 last year, when the rate was Ksh90 to the dollar.

But no matter, Circle is a Kenyan company and files its accounts in shillings, so champagne all round and congratulations to the merry buyers.

Interestingly, Circle’s total sales figure was achieved on fewer lots — 50 compared with 57 last year — although of course it could be argued that one major painting of international significance could easily dwarf the total sales of many an auction, in East Africa and elsewhere.

Of this year’s offerings, seven remained unsold including, surprisingly, a fine Timothy Brooke of Clouds over Lolldaiga, a typically boisterous (some would say vulgar) Bertier’s painting called The Doctor’s Strike, the magnificent wall sculpture of clothing labels by Peter Walala (what is that about prophets in their own land?), a Kivuthi Mbuno called Dangerous Leopard and an Elkana Ong’esa soapstone sculpture Memory of a Fallen Hero.

Of the 43 lots that did sell, top spot was a dead heat at Ksh1,878,400 ($18,415) between Geoffrey Mukasa’s Post-Cubist At Home, and Rashid Diab’s large Out of Focus — the surprise of the show which exceeded its top estimate by almost Ksh1 million ($9,803).

Next came the Ugandan Eli Kyeyune’s academic nude, at Ksh1,643,600 ($16,113), three times its top estimate, followed by Ethiopian Dawit Abebe’s rear view of a nude, appropriately called Background, which sold for Ksh1,291,400 ($12,660), almost twice its top estimate.

Then came Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga’s delightful Elephant from the Emerson Foundation, which went for Ksh763,100 ($7,481) against a top estimate of Ksh473,000 ($4,637).

Last on the list of the six top sellers was Peterson Kamwathi’s charcoal drawing Peri Urban Encounters II, which was sold for Ksh645,700 ($6,330.)

All prices quoted include the buyers’ premium of 15 per cent plus VAT, which equals 17.4 per cent of the hammer price, being the figure at which each lot is sold by the auctioneer.

So, a loud shout for the East African art auction — but not one that will be repeated next year, at least by Circle.

They intend to skip a year and are already planning their next big sale for early in 2017.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.