There is a dire need to establish state and public infrastructures whereby Kenyan art will flourish. But to begin with, such an infrastructure has to be guided by legislation on art. Such legislation will, among other roles, regulate and institutionalise schools of fine art, artists’ guilds, national art galleries, museums and festivals, through which national art will be taught, produced, developed, collected, sold and preserved.
As early as 1963 (Independence year) efforts were made to establish a national art gallery with branches in the provinces, whereby Kenyan art could be exhibited to a greater national audience and preserved for posterity. But understandably a young nation at that time had more pressing issues to attend to. On the other hand the Government officials who would have sanctioned the establishment of art infrastructure knew nothing about art beyond the dance troupes that entertained them in public fora. According to the Kazi Moto column in the Daily Nation in September 1965, during the Commonwealth Arts Festival in London Kenya was represented by Chuka Drummers and in April, 1966, during the first Festival of Negro Art at Dakar no official Kenyan delegation was sent. In April 1967, through the initiative of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Paa ya Paa Gallery presented sculptures by the late Samwel Wanjau to the Kenya pavilion at the Expo '67 international fair in Montreal, Canada. This was a forum suited for curios but Government officials saw no difference.
Ever since, artists have pressurized the Government to establish channels through which they could showcase their work to fellow countrymen. Unfortunately, there was no government department or recurrence expenditure for the arts until the formation of the Department of Culture in1979.
Our National Museums never made any attempt to have works by indigenous artists exhibited there but instead had Joy Adamson’s works on some of their walls. The first attempts to establish a National Art Gallery were aborted in 1981 when the renovated space which houses the present National Archives at the former Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) headquarters on Moi Ave/Tom Mboya Street was instead allocated to house a Pan African collection of arts and artefacts owned by the late Vice President Joseph Murumbi. A clique of powerful individuals associated with the same individuals at the National Museums saw to it that the standing committee of young Kenyan artists would not achieve their dream of a national art gallery. However, this did not deter some of the artists’ organizing committee members. They instead approached the newly formed Department of Culture for a way forward.
In October 1981 the first National Art Festival (Utamaduni wa Sanaa) organised and sponsored by the Government was held at the Nairobi City Hall. The exhibition showcased Kenya’s material culture with an emphasis on Kenya’s visual arts. The themes of submitted works varied from wildlife depiction to serious socio-political commentary by members who would later form Sisi Kwa Sisi. Noteworthy is that some of the works on socio-political commentary were removed from the exhibition, and later on some of the creators had to flee the country. Notwithstanding this issue, the success of the festival was reflected in the viewer attendance, readers’ comments, critics' reviews and editorials in the local media which prompted the Minister of Culture and Social Services to declare it an annual event henceforth. Sadly this promise was never fulfilled. The success of the festival and the composition of the organizing committee did not please the same clique of individuals who had blocked the first attempt to establish a national art gallery at the former KCB headquarters. Indeed there had been a consistent and surreptitious rebuttal of anything rooted in Kenyan cultures being exhibited or promoted in public without the blessing of the Establishment. Throughout the colonial and neo-colonial times in Kenya there has been a ruling class perception that Kenyan performing cultures are repugnant – the exception of course being traditional dances performed for politicians and the art and craft for tourists. Promoting an enabling environment for Kenya art to thrive in the country has been, to say the least, an intricate endeavour.
In the early eighties, groups of performing artists started travelling theatres with themes laden with current socio-political concerns. The notable examples were the University of Nairobi travelling theatre and Kamirithu Community Theatre. Both attempts by the travelling theatre groups were interrupted and banned by the state. Again, some of the organizers had to flee the country.
The abortion of the first National Art Gallery; lack of space to exhibit art to a larger local audience and inspiration from the performing artists’ recent innovation gave rise to Sisi Kwa Sisi. In 1982, Sisi Kwa Sisi started exhibiting their works through travelling the most populous slums and areas of Nairobi. Sisi Kwa Sisi targetted market places and public spaces commonly used for baraza (public meeting) or free factual movie shows, school and church compounds. Most of the artworks represented in the travelling exhibition depicted socio-political themes of the day. This did not please the Establishment and severally artists were cautioned.
The open-air exhibitions were conducted for a period of six months. In some of the venues up to 12,000 people attended per day. Most of them were passing by or going about their daily routine or business. The artists banked on these locations for maximum exposure of their thematic art pieces. Themes included socio-political commentary and cultural renaissance. It must be noted that these were the days when Kenya was being run as a police state under a single political party dictatorship.
After a while, the going for Sisi Kwa Sisi got tough financially. Self-sponsored travelling exhibitions were untenable. As they came to an end, however, the flagging spirit to take art to the people did not die. Some of the artists simply invoked new channels. Between 1992 and 2006, Sanaa Art Promotions engaged over 240 both visual and performing artists to use art for social marketing. Indeed schools and communities throughout Kenya and South Sudan saw skits performed and murals painted by these artists. Many a time the performances and mural painting were participatory involving the audiences. Sanaa Art Promotions was registered as a business name by artist Sukuro Etale soon after the abortion of Sisi Kwa Sisi travelling exhibitions. The idea was to agitate for national development of Kenyan art without state interference. To safely cultivate the idea commission from state owned corporations were sought and granted. Later on the idea of using both performing and visual arts for social marketing gained popularity; and Sanaa Art Promotions changed its status to a Community Based Organisation (CBO) and later to a National Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).