Circle Art Agency set a record in October as Kenya's first art online auction. The agency has been hosting annual auctions of modern and contemporary East African art since 2013 and has attracted international buyers and a growing base of Kenyan collectors.
This first virtual auction was a small event, with just 37 lots of mostly secondary market and modern works. However, it achieved a 90 percent sell-out rate and recorded Ksh14 million ($128,182) in sales.
"In spite of a difficult year, the East African art market is stable and growing," said Danda Jaroljmek, director of Circle Art.
The highest sale was a painting by the late Geoffrey Mukasa of Uganda, for Ksh1,053,900 ($9,600). Record prices were attained for works by Peter Elungat of Kenya, Theresa Musoke of Uganda, Nadir Tharani of Tanzania and Charles Sekano of South Africa.
The online auction was occasioned by the closure of the Circle Art due to Covid-19 restrictions, prompting a rethink of selling channels. From conversations with galleries around the world, Danda recognised that keen collectors still look for art and that they were mostly buying from artists and galleries they were familiar with.
Prominent auction houses such as Sotheby's, Bonham's, Christie's, and Strauss and Co of South Africa have held online auctions this year, where no buyers were physically present and the event was live streamed.
"We decided to improve our online presence significantly and try a small online auction to test the market, see if there was any interest," said Danda, adding that clients have previously requested online bidding in addition to live, telephone and absentee bids.
Worldwide interest in contemporary African art, the least explored frontier, has grown significantly in recent years. Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu's portrait painting Christine sold for a record-breaking $1.4 million at Sotheby's London in 2019.
The global attention is driving a redefinition of African art, greater participation in acclaimed events, and attracting a growing class of high net-worth African collectors.
Circle Art is the only gallery in Kenya to host art auctions, indicative of the infancy of the industry despite decades of contemporary artistry. South Africa, now the leading arts market on the continent, has more than 10 auction houses and dozens more art galleries.
Nigeria has a National Gallery of Modern Art in Lagos, a virtual Museum of Modern Art and twice-yearly auctions by Arthouse Contemporary of Lagos.
In both South Africa and Nigeria, arts and culture form an integral part of national identity and this is where Kenya differs. The apathy here can be traced to a colonial legacy that extensively eradicated our traditions and as yet, artistic heritage has not been fully assimilated into daily existence.
To date, there is no national art gallery to preserve, present and educate on Kenya's arts legacy. Public and private sector investment in fine arts remains limited. Until two years ago, art was an extra-curricular subject in most schools, leaving a generation of artists with inadequate foundational skills.
Consequently, a large section of local artists is self-taught, treading a tough road, sometimes fortunate enough to be tutored or work alongside established creatives. Artist collectives like The GoDown Arts Centre, Banana Hill Art Gallery, Kuona Arts Trust have stepped into the gap with shared spaces to incubate upcoming artists. But it takes time, practise and expensive materials to nurture raw talent into critical and commercial success. Yet, if properly supported, fine arts can be an avenue for the youth to find employment.
"The problem is not the artists," says Wambui Kamiru Collymore, an installation artist and the founder of The Art Space gallery. She lauds Kenyan artists for their resilience and perseverance against huge odds, saying "At this time, it is structures that are not working."
Insufficient art spaces are one aspect ailing Kenya's arts ecosystem. But from a business perspective, running an art gallery is not always profitable. Wambui closed her gallery within two years because of prohibitive rental prices, numerous licensing requirements, salaries and other costs. It is these kinds of barriers that stifle small galleries and keep the show space under-represented.
"Yet, there is a need for gallery spaces that create programmes and experiences to educate the public on the arts," said Wambui.
Consumers are an integral part of a thriving arts industry, whether they buy for enjoyment, status, as a future investment or to build a collection. More needs to be done to educate potential Kenyan collectors. Wambui now works in an arts advisory capacity, dealing with select private buyers to help them build their art knowledge and collections.
Events such as the Annual Affordable Art Show, by the Kenya Museum Society, give new art consumers an opportunity to develop an arts appreciation and start their collections at reasonable prices. This limited period event showcases artists from around East Africa with works priced as low as $100, demystifying the notion that art buying is only for the wealthy.
Devoted collectors are not necessarily trained in the arts but develop an interest organically. Investment professional Tony Wainaina with a partiality towards tribal art, oil paintings and mixed media on canvas, he has increased his knowledge through books, visiting galleries and interacting with artists.
Wainaina is now part of a revived initiative by the government and the National Museums to establish a national art gallery.