Why Nairobi has become mecca of Kenyan public art

Visual artists are ever in a quandary over where to exhibit their art.

Either their work requires more space than some Nairobi galleries and art centres have available or the price of renting exhibition space is more than artists can afford. Some proprietors are also slow in providing payment to artists after their artworks are sold.

However, many ingenious Kenyan artists have found ways around these roadblocks. Quite a few display their art on Facebook (like Michael Soi, Mbuthia Maina and many others), while some establish their own websites (like Bankslave) or open up galleries of their own. (For instance, this past weekend, Adrian Nduma invited the public to his Bonzo Gallery on Ngong Road).

Meanwhile, others have chosen to go the route of public art, creating large-scale sculptures and murals all over town. The most conspicuous works may be the city centre sculptures of Dedan Kimathi (made by Kevin Oduor with support from Kenyatta University’s Art Department) and Tom Mboya (sculpted by Kisumu-based artist Oshoto Ondula).

Maggie Otieno, working with a number of Kuona artists, has also designed and constructed a variety of public works of art, most notably at railway stations, from Imara Daima and Makadara to Syokimau.

Graffiti artists like Kevin ‘Bankslave’ Esendi, Swift (Wycliffe) Elegwa and Uhuru B (Brown) also cannot be ignored, especially as their sassy pre-2013 election block-long wall mural, situated squarely in the city centre, generated international as well as local media attention.

It was public art that inspired ordinary Kenyans to recognise the role that art can potentially play in raising political awareness.

Meanwhile, many more Kenyans have been involved in creating both outdoor and indoor public works, including Maryann Muthoni, Nani Croze, Expedito Mwebe and Gakunju Kaigwa among others.


One of the most impressive public artworks is a three-dimensional ‘mural’ shaped as an elongated ‘World Map’ and sculpted recently out of assorted ‘found objects’ by Dennis Muraguri. It’s located in the lobby of the PriceWaterhouseCoopers Building in Westlands not far from another exciting piece of public art by El Tayeb Mohammed.

Two more clusters of public art have recently been commissioned at the new Garden City Mall. They are by Maggie Otieno and Peterson Kamwathi (whose studies of his ‘cut out’ rainbow clusters are currently standing in Nairobi Museum’s Creativity Gallery together with paintings by Beatrice Wanjiku and Justus Kyalo).

The success of these two innovative artists has given other Kenyan ‘creatives’ hope that increasingly architects, contractors and land developers will want to include aesthetic elements in their construction designs.

But Nairobi still has a long way to go before the city fathers realise they have a visual ‘gold mine’ in their midst from which they could easily market our capital city as a mecca of contemporary Kenyan art. But that hasn’t stopped hotels like the Best Western from covering their hotel walls with artworks curated by Pendo Arts.

Yet it was years before Best Western began to showcase young Kenyans’ art that the Serena Hotels all around East Africa were giving artists like Yony Waite and Expedito Mwebe opportunities to cover their walls with wonderful paintings and murals made out of everything from oil paints and Kisii stone to hand-carved wooden panels steeped in stories fresh out of East African folklore.

Traditional art galleries still have an important role to play in promoting African art, which is why we appreciate Banana Hill Art Gallery for its current displays of works by artists historically associated with Shine and Rahab Tani’s art space.

New gallery

One Off Gallery is also to be applauded for giving exhibiting works by all the artists who recently showed their best works in London at the Gallery of African Art which was curated by Carole Lees and Elsbeth Court.

We are also happy to hear that a new exhibition space is opening later this month on James Gichuru Road. Coincidentally, the new Circle Art Gallery will inaugurate its new space with an exhibition of original art conceived especially for this premier event.

Meanwhile, eateries like the Talisman continue to feature works by local artists like the award-winning painter Mike Kyalo whose portraits of ordinary people tell vivid tales of workers’ everyday lives.

This article was first published on BusinessDailyAfrica

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