Jua Kali City: The Nairobi Art World as a Site of Cultural Production

Volume 12, Issue 3  | 
Published 01/03/2016

We live in the age of the city. The city is everything to us— It consumes us, and for that reason we glorify it. Onookome Okome: ‘Writing the Anxious City…’

By Margaretta Gacheru

This story began with the intention of focusing on three separate art worlds in Kenya and examining the impact of globalization on the Banana Hill Art Studio, Kisii Soapstone Cooperative Society and Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art. But that plan quickly changed once I hit the ground in Nairobi after being away from the country for a decade. I had been an arts reporter for leading Kenyan newspapers for many years, and although my focus had been on both performance and visual arts, I had steered clear of the visual for several years just because the contemporary visual art scene had become too political for my taste. Like some of the artists you will read about, I felt local artists were being used as ‘stepping stones’ for other people’s advancement in the international donor world, so I stepped back from covering art exhibitions and spent most of my nights reviewing plays in Nairobi. I had to leave the country for family reasons just before the new millennium arrived, but once I returned to Kenya a decade later, I found so much vibrant cultural activity, so much dynamism, innovation, creative energy and global flows, that I knew I couldn’t confine myself to only three art worlds; I had to see the city holistically as a site of cultural production and an ‘art world’ in its own right. Certainly the number of formal art institutions has increased exponentially in the last ten years: There are also more training sites for aspiring artists. Otherwise, the first two post-independent commercial art galleries still exist, one indigenous (Paa ya Paa, meaning ‘the antelope is rising’), the other expatriate (Gallery Watatu); thriving foreign cultural centres - French, German, British and Italian are also still active and accommodating, and the National Archives and National Museums are on-going, although the latter has been transformed with millions of European Union euros brought in to renovate and provide some funds for the arts from 2006.

Donor money has played a central role in transforming and even globalizing Nairobi’s art world over the last decade not only at the National Museums of Kenya, but in the start-ups of new institutions. The RaMoMA Museum of Modern Art and The GoDown Art Centre might never have gotten off the ground without substantial funding from the Ford Foundation and other development aid agencies. The same is true for another art centre, Kuona Trust, which had started up with donor funds in the mid-90s ostensibly to help develop contemporary Kenyan art and artists. But as the artists themselves will explain, donor funding can be problematic, particularly when the funds dry up as many of them have since the 2008 Global Recession. And as Rasna Warah, a Kenyan journalist and former United Nations staffer explains, donor aid often leads to donor dependency among its recipients. At the same time, ‘Dependency on aid (donor funding) also allows development workers and other do-gooders to continue justifying to themselves why their work is so important’ (Warah 2008: 13).

The point is that while one dimension of globalization in Kenya is donor money coming into the arts community, having both positive and negative effects, foreign funding is not the only factor contributing to the tremendous growth in jua kali arts activity in the past few decades. On the contrary, part of the dynamism has been due to artists’ resistance to donor controls. In this regard, Rasna Warah again made the valid point when she wrote: ‘Aid-dependency also ensures that rich countries retain some control over their former colonies’ (2008: 12). One group especially resistant to this kind of neocolonial control was the Hawa Women’s group. They had actually applied for funding to build a fully-equipped women’s art studio, and received approval for $800,000 grant from an American donor. But when one of the donor managers refused to disperse the funds except on terms that he specified, the Hawa Women went elsewhere to raise funds from both global and local sources to conduct rural women’s art workshops that took them all over the countryside. They also managed to expose the donor’s controlling practices in the media. Other jua kali artists reacted to donors trying to determine where they could work. Rather than be controlled by the donor’s dictates, these artists simply moved out from under the donor’s gaze. In the spirit of jua kali self-reliance, they fanned out and found new spaces from which to work. Having been lulled into complacency with the donor’s promise of ‘free things,’ once the artists realized that nothing—not even foreign aid -- came for free, they were aroused and energized by that awakening. Quite a number of creative initiatives have resulted from that awakening.

Based on my research findings, spending many months working with, listening to and writing about Kenya’s jua kali artists, I argue that much more than donor money has brought about the tremendous cultural productivity among Kenyan artists, a productivity that’s been aptly named an African Renaissance. More than money has scattered artists all across the city where they are at work in slums and industrial areas as well as in posh suburbs and peri-urban sites. I argue that it is what Raymond Williams calls an ‘emergent cultural practice’ and what I call a jua kali survival strategy which has unleashed infinite possibilities for creative expression among jua kali artists.

Given that the term jua kali has historically referred to informal sector employment, which is where millions of Kenyans migrating to the city in search of work go to earn some kind of livelihood, however meagre it may be, it is hardly a surprise that a fair percentage of them resort to jua kali artistry. What’s important to note however is that a major factor contributing to the growth of the informal sector was the World Bank-IMF-led structural adjustment programs of the late 1980s and 1990s, which reduced or eliminated subsidies on basic services in urban areas. Not surprisingly, it was around this same time that the Kenya government began to take note of the immense entrepreneurial potential of the informal sector. Ironically, it was again the World Bank that assisted the government in 1988 to set up a Jua Kali Development Program. However, it was jua kali artisans—not artists-- who got all the attention and the funding.

One reason the artists have not been the beneficiaries of government grants is because nobody has classified local artists as being jua kali, which is one reason why I feel my research has significance. In some circles, the term jua kali is pejorative and even derogatory having racist connotations which suggest jua kali work is inferior. But as Kenneth King points out in his book, Jua Kali Kenya (1995), since the early 1970s when the term was first coined, it has gradually come to refer to anyone who is self-employed. As such, the vast majority of Kenyan artists are jua kali because they are self-employed. But in my usage of the term, jua kali artists are not only free-lance; they are entrepreneurial in the best sense, meaning they are innovative, adaptable, inventive and original. So in my view, it is a major oversight by the government not to understand the value and vast economic potential of jua kali artists as well as jua kali artisans.

The artisans tend to be more visible as they often work in clusters, in estates (what South Africans call townships) such as Gikomba and Kawangware. In that regard, they are also more statistically accessible than jua kali artists who as I have noted are more scattered around the city and less inclined to be counted or classified. For instance, no one quite knows, not even the Ministry of Culture, how many artists are working in Kenya, leave alone in Nairobi today. However, at the 2010 Nairobi Province Visual Art Exhibition, which was partly sponsored by the Kenya Government, over 200 artists brought in works of art for possible inclusion in a one month exhibition held at The GoDown Arts Centre. That number is understood to be a fraction of the jua kali artists working in Nairobi currently. ‘Many didn’t want to be bothered. They don’t trust the government and figured participation in such a show would only take away from the time they could be working on their art,’ said jua kali sculptor David Mwaniki.

Meanwhile, a good number of jua kali artists have moved out to the peri-urban edges of Nairobi to form enclaves of artists. A recent informal count of working artists based in one such enclave, Ngecha, amounted to 94, but the art collector Anthony Athaide who made that count early in 2010 claims he is sure he still has more artists to count. When one realizes there are comparable artist enclaves scattered all over Nairobi, from Kahawa West to Kitengela, Kibera to Kayole and from Ruaka to Ridgeways, one has to appreciate that something exciting is happening in Nairobi as far as cultural production is concerned. It’s no wonder that Kenya’s leading novelist and cultural critic, Ngugi wa Thiong’o refers to a Renaissance taking place in the region (Wa Thiong’o 2009).

In addition, the number of individual artists working at open-air jua kali sites set up in spaces available or at their homes is practically incalculable. However, in many instances, their work can be found in up-market galleries, such as RaMoMA or Watatu or in curio-filled shops where art is bought and sold like potatoes. The latter ‘culture industries’ cater less to collectors and more to tourists; but to the artists who want cash to carry home, these shops (which tend to be run by South Indians) provide artists with a willing buyer. The cash they carry, however, is a pittance compared to what they would get if they had taken their art across the street to the commercial gallery; but then the up market galleries take time to sell artists’ work and the need for cash can be pressing. ‘It’s a vicious cycle, selling to the Asians because artists get addicted to being given the cash on the spot,’ said jua kali artist Patrick Kinuthia. ‘Often, those artists don’t know how to manage their money. Instead, they go out and drink it all, which is what I used to do until I got saved,’ he added.

One factor that enables artists like Kinuthia to break out of the cash-to-carry cycle is the transnational connection that they are able to make with art markets overseas. In Kinuthia’s case, it was a brother living in the United States who opened up a whole new revenue stream when he began selling prints of Kinuthia’s colorful paintings in galleries around the country. Other artists, such as Mary Ogembo and Rahab Njambi, are selling their art on line at websites designed by Germans, Dutch and Americans. And increasingly, Kenyan artists, such as Ato Malinda, Samuel Githui, Peterson Kamwathi and Gakunju Kaigwa have been able to be present when their work goes on exhibition overseas. These kinds of global connections are what most Kenyan artists aspire to have. And increasingly, jua kali artists are becoming transnational as they figure out ways to travel abroad for artists’ workshops or residencies. However, gaining the cultural capital required to be sought after in the global art market is still a cache that eludes most Kenyan artists. In this study, I will theorize this dilemma and posit some of the challenges and possibilities for ways jua kali artists can move beyond these barriers.

In the meantime, the works by jua kali artists are increasingly visible in Nairobi as the number of art centres proliferate and ordinary Kenyans gain appreciation for both the economic and the aesthetic value of the visual arts. In part this new appreciation is due to the Kenyanization of local media, particularly through popular television channels such as KTN and Citizen TV, which regularly run programs on the visual arts. The Internet has also played a significant role in rousing public awareness, especially among tech-savvy youth, as to the value of the visual arts. Kenyans are increasingly taking part in the ‘global flows’ that Arjun Appadurai writes about in Modernity at Large, meaning through their increased access to new technologies they are more attuned to cultural currents and thought trends (what Appadurai calls ideoscapes and mediascapes) which include appreciation of visual culture. For instance, it was the Kenyan public that put pressure on their government to immortalize national heroes like the Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, leading the government to commission a larger-than-life size bronze statue of Kimathi. What’s more, public art projects have mushroomed across the land; among them are two- and three-story wall murals featuring social messages related to everything from the need for ‘good governance’ and peaceful politics to HIV/AIDS awareness and family planning. Environmentalists have also taken to the arts to drive their message home that Kenya’s wildlife needs to be preserved for the sake of the eco-system and the country’s tourist-fueled economy. Thus, scores of local artists were called upon in 2009 to decorate 50 life-size fiberglass lions to rouse public awareness of the plight of Kenya’s dwindling lion population and raise millions to keep them alive.

And probably the most popular yet controversial art form weaving its way around Nairobi today is the multicolored matatu, a public service mini-van that is used by the vast majority of low and middle income Kenyans on a daily basis. Matatu art as well as ‘bar art’ (found in local hotels, cafes, bars, barber shops and tearooms all across Kenya) are two of the most prolific popular art forms that may be found in every sector of the city populated by the less-than-posh majority of Kenyans.

All this is to say that Nairobi is one vibrant art world in which jua kali artists take every opportunity they can to show off their work, be it on the front and backside of matatus, in up-market restaurants (like Talisman, Le Rustique, Race Course and Café des Arts), five-star hotels, city parks where homeless people spend their nights or in museums and shopping malls.

It was based on these research findings that I came to the realization that there was no way I could do justice to contemporary Kenyan art by solely focusing on three separate institutions. I had to treat them as art networks interconnected at many levels: first by virtue of the artists shifting from site to site depending on their priorities and preferences, next by virtue of the institutions working together on one project or other, and third, by virtue of the markets that Kenyan artists aim to penetrate and which cause them to collaborate in devising ever-more ingenious strategies to break into both local and global art markets.

Once I discovered the fluidity of the Nairobi art world and especially the mobility of the jua kali artists, I realized I had to revise my research program. Now my research schedule would require my traversing the city many times in a single week. I could be in the Kibera slum on Monday, in the peri-urban areas -- visiting Village Market, Kilele Art Studio at Ruaka and Banana Hill Art Studio all on a Tuesday, trekking to the Ministry of Culture in Nairobi’s city center on a Wednesday followed by a matatu ride up to Kuona Trust in the green leafy suburb of Hurlingham on a Thursday, then on Friday walking up the steep Museum Hill to see an exhibition at the Creativity Gallery at the Nairobi National Museum. On a Saturday, I could travel out on another matatu to Ridgeways Road, after which I would hop on a piki piki (motorcycle for hire) to save myself the 20 minute walk to reach Paa ya Paa Art Centre. And finally on a Sunday I could take another matatu and piki piki ride, this time to Kitengele Glass Museum where Nani Croze also has her home and studio.

Every week was filled with comparable foot work on my part to collect valuable data about this under-researched arena of contemporary East African art. To see Nairobi as a jua kali city and art world makes a good deal of sense to me. But in the coming chapters I will elaborate on the reasons why I feel comfortable describing Nairobi as both a jua kali city as well as a global city, irrespective of the fact that Saskia Sasson has not seen fit to include Nairobi on her list of ‘cities in a world economy’. Nairobi is a jua kali city because it embraces artists who employ jua kali as a strategy for survival at many different levels: they use jua kali tactics to collect art materials, find sites wherein to create their art, obtain skills training to improve the quality of their work, and devise innovative ways to market their art.

As for it being a global city, Nairobi increasingly qualifies for this ranking for several reasons. One is that it is the only city in the South that contains several United Nations headquarters. Those UN employees are one of the main reasons jua kali artists take their art to up-market restaurants and elite malls since UN personnel tend to be connoisseurs of contemporary art. Another key factor in contributing to Nairobi qualifying to be considered a global city is its increasing connectivity. Ever since fibre optic cables reached Nairobi in July 2009 (Ross 2009), Kenyans have been thriving on high speed internet access. Plus they pioneered ‘mobile money’ (Dizikes 2010), the cash that Kenyans send by their mobile phones all over the country. Finally, the other reason why Nairobi ought to be up for a change of status is because the Nairobi Stock Exchange is among the leading Stock Exchanges in Africa (Mwangi 2010). The founder of the Nairobi Stock Exchange, Jimnah Mbaru, is one of the most canny African entrepreneurs in the world, which is one of the reasons why, in spite of the post-election violence of 2007/8, the Kenyan economy is bouncing back and is far less damaged by the 2008 Recession than stock markets in Europe and the US since they played no part in the derivatives/credit default swap games of American and European stock brokers.

Kenyan jua kali artists still have a problem, which the Ghanaian journalist Osei Kofi put rather well. He said Kenyans need to be buying their own people’s art (Kofi 2009). Jua Kali artists still have a serious problem with marketing and distributing their work in both the local and the global art market. But this too is changing. As Nairobi gets more globalized and Kenyan artists get more glocalized, the Nairobi art world is bound to change. We will be monitoring that change, which is already under way right now.

A copy of this publication is available from the author at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Last modified on Thursday, 10 March 2016 14:55

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