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East Africa art on rise as Kenya holds first commercial auction

04 November 2013, 20:59

Nairobi - Kenyan artist Boniface Maina, dreadlocks peeping out from a woolly hat, strolls round paintings and sculptures going under the hammer Tuesday in the first commercial auction of east African art.

The auction in Nairobi is a sign of the growing profile of the region's flourishing art scene.

"It's a great step towards east African art becoming better known," Maina said, adding he hopes in the future to collect art as well as create it.

Tuesday's high society auction at an upmarket hotel includes 47 lots from the past three or four decades, with prices expected to range from a few hundred dollars (euros) to almost $30,000 (22,000 euros).

"You have to buy what you love, but also being aware that art is a valuable commodity, and expresses the cultural heritage of the country that it's made in," said Danda Jaroljmek, director of the Circle Art Agency, which is organising the auction.

"We want people to join us in this new journey to discover art."

Kenyan artists predominate but Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan are also represented.

"It's a positive step for the market in east African art, it opens up the art scene," said Sudanese artist Eltayeb Dawel Beit, most recently working on an installation for the lobby of PricewaterhouseCoopers' new Nairobi office.

In recent years the art world has eagerly sought out emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, but now collectors seem to be turning their sights also to Africa.

So far, attention has focused largely on west and southern Africa. Now, slowly, east African artists are generating interest too.

The London auction house Bonhams earlier this year sold the work of eight leading Kenyan artists on the eve of the firm's 'Africa Now' sale of contemporary African art, meaning that works that would previously have been seen only in Nairobi were exposed in London.

'I do not create controversy, I just create work'

The region's elite and small but growing middle class are slowly turning to the idea of art as an investment.

"I think it's very exciting, and I think from an investors point of view, and someone who appreciates art, I think it's only going one way, and that's going higher," Aly-Khan Satchu, an investment advisor and head of Rich Management told AFP.

"It's starting from a really low base. I don't think anyone abroad knew much about it, so it is a sort of a 'popping over the radar' moment for it."

Representatives from major auction houses in Britain, South Africa and Nigeria will be present.

Just over half the lots come direct from the artists, and the remainder from collectors.

One of the best-known names to feature in the auction is Michael Soi, whose bold, often humorous cartoon-style works, tackle issues like China's growing role in Africa, to prostitution and the cases of Kenya's leaders at the International Criminal Court.

The Nairobi artist says he doesn't try to be contentious, but just to portray the life around he sees.

"I do not create controversy, I just create work that revolves around things that I see," Soi said. "So, I want to believe that society itself is creating the controversy, all I'm doing is just documenting it."

But one of his gripes has long been that Kenyans do not buy his work, that even his friends would rather spend money on a car than buy a work of art.

Nicola Elphinstone, co-director of 32 Degrees East, a Uganda-based centre that promotes the creation and exploration of art, said she thought the auction was "fantastic, in that it's the chance to really engage a local audience and get local collectors involved".

The artists include Peterson Kamwathi, a rising star in his early thirties, whose work has been purchased by the British Museum.

Kamwathi argues that the growing strength of art centres and agencies have helped make Nairobi the centre of the region's emerging scene.



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