Nairobi is a world-class city, on par with the best in the world, but it wasn’t until recently that it gained recognition for its uniquely vibrant arts & culture scene.

UK-based travel publisher, Rough Guides, recently rated Nairobi the 3rd best city to visit in 2017, beating more established cities (like Bristol, England and Antwerp, Belgium), courtesy of its appealing attractions.

Additional offerings include fashion, great shopping, dining options and, of course, its one-of-a-kind game reserve and nightlife.

So what’s driving this renewed zeal for art? Analysts say an educated and growing middle class, with disposable income and exposure to the outside world, is propelling the demand for homespun art. Improved internet connectivity has also enabled artists to showcase their creativity online more easily and has allowed fans to be informed of show dates and locations. Better road infrastructure has meant that art enthusiasts can get to venues much faster as well.

Interestingly, however, Nairobi has no defined art district or an evident urban culture. The city has no homegrown art festivals or events either.

Nairobi Skyline at Night

Nairobi Skyline at Night (Matua Matheka)

Without a defined art district, historic theaters and art venues (notably, the National Museum, on Museum Hill, Westlands; the Kenya National Theater, along Harry Thuku Road, opposite Nairobi University; the French Cultural Centre Auditorium and Goethe Institute; and the Bomas of Kenya) are scattered across the city. This has not deterred Nairobi residents from seeking and enjoying local art, though.

“We are seeing a new generation of Kenyans interested in their own heritage, art and culture. Many more people are choosing to come to the theater and watch a local production,” says Sitawa Namwale, a poet who has been writing and reciting poetry for more than a decade. She says demand for quality artwork is pushing local artists to work harder and create art that resonates with a conscious and discerning, local audience.

Ten years ago, the scenario was very different. Artists produced and packaged art for the tourist, expatriate and well-to-do Kenyan, but the dynamics are changing.

“I want my audience to identify with my poetry, enjoy the show and come again. I must work extra hard to make that happen,” says Namwale, who has cut a niche, along with a select few performing artists, with her uniquely Kenyan-African touch.

Her latest work, a poem titled “Silence Is A Woman,” staged at the Shift Eye Art Gallery in Kilimani, was first performed in 2014 and is back on stage this year due to public demand.

Nairobi Poet Sitawa Namwale

Poet Sitawa Namwale (right) on stage in the dramatized poem, “Silence Is A Woman.” (Courtesy of Sitawa Namwale)

AN ARTIST’S COLONY IN NAIROBI

Sensing the growing demand for homegrown art, a new artist colony has sprung up right in Nairobi’s Karen suburbs, not to mention the dozens of new art galleries that have appeared across the city. Established two years ago, by painter and art collector, Anthony Athaide, the colony offers creative spaces for dozens of artists from Kenya and the region. When completed, the colony, which is known as Karen Village, will be home to 24 artists living and working there.

Notable artists, who have taken up residence in the colony, include Elizabeth Richardson Mazrui, an acclaimed scholar and author. Her studio showcases her writings and an impressive art collection amassed over the years.

Ocean Sole, a marine conservation effort that began in Kiwayu, Malindi, now sells beautiful carvings of marine wildlife worldwide, made from flip flops left on the beach. Visitors to Ocean Sole have included the Pope.

Elizabeth Richardson Mazrui

Courtesy of Elizabeth Richardson Mazrui

Another resident in the colony is fine artist Dixon Asiago Masita, a gifted young painter, who is among a group of 12 artists selected by Amnesty International to put brush to canvas and speak out against extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances of Kenyan youth.

His life-size painting juxtaposes the judiciary, the executive and the law enforcement against a decapitated victim, down on his knees. A bloodied sword stands poised above his head. Beside his lifeless body sits a grieving mother.

This piece is as shocking as it is beautiful, but to the untrained eye, its chilling message is hard to decipher.

Dixon Asiago Masita Painting

Dixon Asiago Masita Painting (Courtesy of Dixon Asiago Masita)

Masita says he wanted to show how the three arms of government conspire to kill and force perceived offenders to disappear, causing untold suffering to their loved ones. It is this injustice that artists like Masita want to highlight and address.

Masita says works like this would not have seen the light of day before, explaining that artists today enjoy much more freedom to perform, paint and create without fear of intimidation or repression. He attributes the freedom he and others now enjoy to the new constitution (2010), which guarantees freedom of expression.

Masita is among a few artists who have benefited from a government land grant, allowing for new studios to be built. He sees it as a positive step and recognition by the government of an artist’s union, through which he and other budding artists have received the grant.

“Space to create and make a living out of art has also expanded,” Masita says, referring to the artist colony, where his studio now stands. “Before this, I could not afford to open a studio; I painted and sold my work piece by piece but on consignment. That meant waiting for months for the work to sell, and once sold, I was forced to split profit with the seller, so my take-home was always too little”

Painter at GoDown 4/16/13

Painter at GoDown (Xinhua/Meng Chenguang)

Back then, Masita said, he took menial jobs, like sign writing and house painting, to get by but confirms his fortunes have changed since he opened the studio. This has allowed more people the opportunity to see and buy pieces. Masita says it has become a lot easier to find jobs, like the Amnesty International gig, because of the publicity he enjoys here.

His spare time is now spent teaching young boys, rescued from the street, how to paint. The struggle to make ends meet is something another artist, poet Sitawa Namwale, knows all too well.

Namwale recalls producing an excellent piece of dramatized poetry, “Cut Off My Tongue,” a few years ago: “I had to go door-to-door, begging people to come watch my performance. In those days, I struggled to put food on the table.” Today, people know and appreciate her poetry and are always ready to attend. She says there are more places to showcase creative works than ever before, so exposure is not limited to friends and colleagues.

Established in 2013, the Shift Eye Studio—where the poem, “Cut Off My Tongue,” was first staged—is itself a new addition to a growing number of studios, theaters and art galleries popping up around the city, meeting the demand for local art. Others include Art Space, Circle Art Agency, Kuona Trust, Power 254 and GoDown (in Nairobi’s industrial area), among others.

Circle Art Agency is one of the few curators setting up shop in Nairobi to help artists sell their work. An art auction, organized last year, showcased selected pieces by local artists that fetched more than $10,000 each. Held at the 5-star hotel, Villa Rosa Kempinsky, the modern and contemporary art auction was attended by both local and international art collectors.

Circle Art Gallery

Circle Art Gallery (Courtesy of Circle Art Agency)

FACELIFT FOR HISTORIC NATIONAL THEATRE, BOON FOR ART

Established in 1952, and refurbished in 2015, the Kenya National Theater and Cultural Center is perhaps the greatest indicator of the changing fortunes for art, its creators & consumers in Nairobi, and the country as a whole.

The 60-year-old performing arts theater, along Harry Thuku Road, in downtown Nairobi, was starved of productions and left to rot for years, until the government, together with a local partner, transformed it into an ultra-modern facility, with a 350-seat auditorium and high-tech sound and lighting equipment. The theater also boasts a classy bar and modern ablution facilities.

The theatre was then reopened by President Kenyatta. Speaking after the facelift, Cabinet Secretary for Art, Sports, Youth and Culture, Hassan Wario, confirmed the theatre as an historic site. He said the facelift was a fitting tribute to the creative community in Kenya, both past and present, and a show of the government’s renewed commitment to promote and nurture creative talent. Since the reopening last year, the theatre has hosted locally-produced plays, musicals and comedies without a break.

According to officials, it costs close to $500 to stage a production in the theatre, for a local artist or troupe, per day and up to $1000 to host a corporate event. This seemingly high price has not deterred local performing artists, who jostle for space there, to showcase their work. An average ticket to a 2-hour show costs at least $5, and a good show can be booked solid for at least two nights.

Kenya National Theater and Cultural Center

Kenya National Theater and Cultural Center (Kenyan Government)

A healthy appetite for local performing arts, by Kenyans, has contributed to the increased popularity of the scene and has been instrumental in the rise of internationally-acclaimed boy band, Sauti Sol—Best African Group in 2015—and the comedy act, Churchill Show, both of which began performing small shows at the National Theater and now command an international following.

Recorded at the Carnivore Nairobi every Thursday, in front of a live audience and aired on local TV every Sunday, Churchill Show is one of the most popular shows to hit the Kenyan scene. Its main act and producer, Daniel Ndambuki, invites up-&-coming comedians to share the stage with him every week, spewing jokes and coarse humor with a uniquely Kenyan flavor, to the applause of a predominately local audience. The program premiered on NTV in 2007, has completed six seasons and is the most watched show in East Africa.

Other artists, like internationally-acclaimed musician Eric Wainaina, have continued to host crowd-pleasing musicals and enjoy a successful music career.

Eric Wainaina

Eric Wainaina (Courtesy of Cumplen Hoy)

Open Mic is a new genre of art that is taking Nairobi by storm. Engage Kenya is an immensely popular open-discussion forum, similar to TED Talks, that takes place every quarter. The forum gives Nairobians a unique opportunity to speak up, engage and discuss different social issues. This event is often overbooked, indicative of a hunger for profound works of art which, as stated by Sitawa Namwale, feed the soul.

According to Angeline Lambi—a young artist based out of the Karen Village, who uses paper mache to give a new lease on life to discarded bottles and tins—Nairobi’s renewed vigor for the arts is paying beautiful dividends for creative talent. Angeline has a knack for crafting lovely pieces of jewelry from turkey feathers and has been able to sell these to local clothing stores.

She is convinced that a new dispensation, that allows people to express themselves in an unhindered manner, has fueled the renaissance of art in Nairobi (and Kenya as a whole).

She compares the current environment to a time, during the repressive Moi rule in the 80s and 90s, when artists, writers, journalists and members of civil society were hounded, arrested and jailed for their opinion. During this period, internationally-acclaimed authors, like Ngugi Wa Thinogo, were forced into exile in order to keep writing.

Today, however, guaranteed freedom of expression, as safeguarded by Kenya’s new constitution, has seen the rise of art in many forms. Case in point is a TV show known as XYZ, which satirizes the Kenyan president and the ruling elite freely.

There are always two sides to a coin, and not everyone believes Nairobi’s arts scene is enjoying an upward trend, and if it is, then it’s not for everyone.

Mukami Kuria, a young art photographer, just returned from London and is one of these critics. In her view, Nairobi residents have a large appetite for comedy, music and other forms of performing arts but no appetite for fine or abstract art, which she argues is still reserved for the rich and foreign art collectors. She feels local art is priced out of reach for the average Kenyan.

Contrary to popular belief, playwright Denise Odionyi feels creative space is actually shrinking and blames the Kenya Film Classification Board for the loss. He says, contrary to its mandate, the body has sought to suppress creative energy by heavily censoring local content. The board has been in the limelight for the wrong reasons recently, over the censor of the movie, 50 Shades of Grey. It was barred from airing, due to its X-rated content. Locally-produced shows have not escaped scrutiny either.

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