Searching for Colors: The Renaissance of East African Art

Article excerpt

The winner is about to be announced. Well-heeled guests, wineglasses in hand, surge forward, eager for a closer look. But who wins the night's competition--for outstanding newcomer--isn't as important as the fact that the exhibition has been organized and is well attended. That is the real prize.

It is a warm and humid evening in February, just before the rainy season. Here, in the art gallery of Kenya's National Museum, artists from throughout East Africa are publicly displaying their work, many for the first time. "East African art is booming," says Rob Burnet, the event organizer. "It's never been as big as it is now."

Indeed, East African art is experiencing rebirth. About four hundred artists submitted around 650 paintings to the contest, which is sponsored by East African Industries, a regional business giant. The turnout impresses even Burnet: "We were only targeting young artists," he marvels. "The idea was to give as many people as possible a chance to exhibit. But when you scratch the surface, you find loads of talent. We are discovering by just putting up our hand and saying `Artists over here' that lots of people are coming out."

Originally from Scotland, Burnet founded the nonprofit Kuona Trust in 1995 at Kenya's National Museum. The trust's purpose is to give struggling local artists a chance. (Kuona means "to see" in Swahili.) The trust provides a place where artists can come to work, experiment with materials, and share ideas. Entirely dependent on local sponsorship, Kuona is run on a shoestring.

The trust is a rarity in this part of the world, but artistic activity thrived for centuries among the region's three hundred or so cultures. It played an integral role in the lives of herders, farmers, fishermen, and traders. Tribesmen expressed themselves through body painting and scarring, jewelry making, weaving, woodwork, and metalwork--art for everyday use. Painting, carving, and clay sculpture also date to prehistoric times.

But colonial values and styles pushed traditional African arts into the background. Critics and historians tended to believe that East Africa held no artistic tradition and focused on the masks and sculptures of' West and Central Africa. Those attitudes now seem set to change, as artists--in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, and elsewhere--successfully experiment with old African styles while using new materials imported from the Western world.

Content and community

Elimu Njau was one of the first to promote regional talent. He is truly the grandfather of East Africa's art renaissance. The affable and eccentric Njau established an artists' colony called Paa Ya Paa outside Nairobi in 1965. It became Kenya's first African-owned art gallery, and its name symbolizes creative adventure.

The commune is a mixture of market garden, display gallery, and artists' studios. As Njau walks around the site, chickens scatter underfoot and cattle placidly munch the grass. Born in Tanzania in 1932 and educated at Uganda's Makerere University fine arts program, where he later taught, Njau has been careful to promote African themes.

He thinks the truest form of art in Africa is community based. His best-known paintings are the Fort Hall murals at a cathedral in Muranga, commemorating those who died in Kenya's independence struggle. Njau caused a stir in 1959 when he depicted Christ and the disciples as black men from the local Kikuyu tribe. "When I was painting the Last Supper in a Kikuyu community, I had to talk to the Kikuyu," he recalls. "They said Christ would be eating yams instead of bread; he'd drink from a ruhia, or horn, instead of a chalice. Even the way the disciples would sit and respond to central authority had to be there."

Ahmed Abusharia, a Sudanese painter, concurs. "In ancient Africa, the artist made masks to communicate with God in ceremonies. The artist is an important character. …