The 1980s and early 1990s were politically challenging times in Kenya. The fight for a less oppressive and suppressive society began in earnest in the early 1980s and continued until the advent of multipartism in the early 1990s. The battle for a more democratic society continues with artists often taking a central role in articulating issues affecting their lives.
In the early 1980s, artists depicted the oppression and suppression through various artistic forms and expression. A group such as Sisi Kwa Sisi (founded by Kahare Miano, Kangara wa Njambi and Gikonyo Maina) had a profound impact on ordinary Kenyans. Their public exhibitions depicting issues such as neo-colonialism, exploitative multinational corporations, state oppression etc. drew large crowds. This engagement of the public through visual statement and criticism was unprecedented in Kenya and led to the closure of such exhibitions by the administrative police. For the first time the Government actually took steps to stifle artistic, visual expression by using riot police to drive away viewers from the exhibition/social halls located in the housing estates.
The 1980s saw both the trained and the "untrained" artists exhibit a variety of works. The introduction of the 8-4-4 education system in 1985 was to have a positive impact on art because Art and Crafts, as a subject, became compulsory at primary level. The wide interest in art that has developed can be partly attributed to the 8-4-4 art syllabus.
In January 1986, a new art gallery opened in Nairobi. This was the Gallery of Contemporary East African Art located at the National Museum. The inaugural exhibition featured fifteen artists chosen out of thirty who had submitted works. In August 1986. Another art gallery opened in Nairobi, this time at Shelter Afrique House. Tobias Butama's works opened the gallery. These new galleries added to the existing ones such as Paa ya Paa and Gallery Watatu, Tazama and of course those in the British, French, and German cultural centres which had become active in promoting local artists through exhibitions.
An important exhibition was one held in November 1984 titled "Sanaa: Contemporary Art from East
Africa" at the Commonwealth Institute in London. It was organised by Elimo Njau, Mordecai Buluma, and Fatmah Abdallah, all Makerere-trained artists.
A good number of exhibitions were held in 1986. In January 1986, John Opiyo exhibited a collection of stylised clay busts. Opiyo was trained at Father Bartel's Centre at the Nyabondo Catholic Mission. David Omasete, the brother of the Kisii stone sculptor Elkane Onqeso. Exhibited paintings at the French Cultural Centre in April 1986. Omasete had also exhibited soapstone sculptures at the Gallery of Contemporary East African Art.
In April 1986, a group of fifteen artists held a joint exhibition. The artists included Etale Sukuro, Fred
Oduya. Ancent Soi, John Diang'a, Jony Waite and Theresa Musoke. Their works demonstrated modern art in Kenya. Rigii wa Karanja held a show of oils and water colours in October 1986. Rigii wa Karanja based his gigantic canvases on historical studies done by Gatimu Maina. Karanja. A "self-taught" artist, put on canvas what he termed "visual history lessons" and titled the exhibit "The soil is ours". Joel Oswaggo, a graphic artist and sign-writer held an exhibition in 1986. Oswaggo often cited as one of Kenya's leading "folk" artists showed crayon drawings of his rural environment in South Nyanza.
Soi was one artist whose works featured in the "African Native Art" show in Paris. Soi also held an exhibition at the Gallery of Contemporary East African Art in December. A Kenyatta University graduate, John Diang'a Obaso, held a show of linocuts at Gallery Watatu. Another Kenyatta
University graduate, Rhoda Muchoki held an exhibition at the French Cultural Centre titled "The Sometimes of a Woman" which focused on the plight and potential of women in Kenya. This was an important exhibition by a young contemporary artist.
The extract above is taken from an article on the ‘Development of Art in Kenya since 1966’.
The author is Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui and was first published in JAHAZI Issue 1, Volume 1 2006