Series Examining Contemporary Art Institutions in Nairobi
Something is happening in Nairobi-something has been roused. There are whispers of audio installations and sightings of video art; conversation on contemporary art is reaching crescendo, and the vocabulary can match that from any scene on the globe. The past decade and a half has seen a painstaking, determined paradigm shift in visual arts in Nairobi, Eastern Africa’s largest city. A crop of young, prolific contemporary artists, like Peterson Kamwathi and Ato Malinda are adamantly soldiering on, where behemoths like Katarikawe and Wadu stumbled. Often, they can be found at the loft of the Nairobi Arts Trust, engaging on topics about the global art scene and one can quickly sense how small the world has become- they are in constant touch with the cultural metro-politic across Africa and abroad.
This shift is occurring in a scene which was mute just over a decade ago, and was only conspicuous for its loud silence. Notwithstanding East African artists like Jak Katarikawe, Sane Wadu, Meek Gichugu, Samuel Wanjau, Elimo Njau and Teresia Musokhe having gained a semblance of international recognition in the 80s and early 90s, they failed to make that one, ultimate shove which should have compellingly launched the East African scene into the larger artistic podium of the world. One can only conjecture that the passing on of Ruth Schaffner, the forceful proprietor of Gallery Watatu, leading to the consequent decline of the gallery, the art scene lingered in a purgatory where it did not stir until the advent of the next generation of artists in the late 90s.
To fully comprehend how Ruth Schaffner and her Gallery Watatu may have unintentionally contributed to the malfunction of the scene, one has to appreciate how she became an ‘authority’ on contemporary East African art. Through her gallery, Ruth wielded immense influence over the artists and hence dictated what kind of art was ‘marketable’ or not. At a period just before the conception of a ‘global village’, her connections to Europe established her as the singular link between the Kenyan artist and the global scene. In 1994 when Ruth died, the art scene was distraught, partly because of genuine grief for one who had tirelessly worked for the young Kenyan artists, but mostly because it is at that point the art scene realized death had snuffed its sole link to Europe and the rest of the world- there is not a single prolific indigenous contemporary visual artist worthy of note above the age of 40 in Kenya today; Jak and Sane have withdrawn to bask in the glory of the days ‘when Mama Ruth was alive’.
The failure of Kenya as a country to develop an infrastructure for conveying critical, intellectual artistic tools is the main reason for the prior stagnation. Nonetheless, this state of affairs does not mean proficient artists are wanting. Actually, in recent times the scene is seeing the rise of competent thinkers whose art belie what they may be short of in formal artistic instruction; educational institutions within the country are deficient in competent visual art curricular, explaining why most artists on the scene are either self trained, or hold basic art diplomas.
There has emerged, in the post-Watatu era a new generation of mercurial institutions taking a pro-active approach in tackling the malfunction on the Kenyan art scene. Rather than rue unfriendly institutional policies, these institutions are determined to delineate contemporary arts in a society which finds it intimidating and unsettling, even. Already, they are channeling capable artists who are fast gaining global credentials, even as they swell the audience base within the region. In a five part series, we shall be taking a look at these pioneering institutions and how they are demarcating contemporary arts in Kenya.
 Ruth Schaffner, contemporary art dealer in California and Africa. Born Ruth Staudinger in Germany, she fled to France at the outset of World War II and was educated there. Later she moved to New York City where she was a commercial photographer of children. One of her major projects was photographing youngsters for the classic series of Ivory Soap commercials. During the 1970s, she operated her gallery on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and in the 1980s moved it to Santa Barbara. She also owned and operated the Watatu Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya, where she encouraged young African artists and became an expert on contemporary African art.