by: John Aglionby – Financial Times
Nairobi artists are banding together to avoid dependence on galleries and patrons
From the street, Brush Tu does not look like a centre of any sort of excellence, let alone the venue for a flourishing collective of young Kenyan artists. There is no sign outside the narrow, scruffy house in the Buru-Buru neighbourhood of east Nairobi, the faded paint on the walls is chipped and the small front yard is a mess.
But this hardly matters to the three young men who, in 2013, diverted from the usual path to artistic success in Kenya. Instead of seeking sponsorship or support from a donor organisation or an arts centre, they teamed up to share costs, increase their exposure and maintain their independence. “There’s a quid pro quo to being supported. I hear these complaints from some artists about having to do this or that,” explains Boniface Maina, 29, one of the Brush Tu’s founders, referring to pressure over subject matter — the current trend being migration. “We didn’t want to have to deal with that. We wanted to do what we wanted, when we wanted.” This is an unusual approach in a nation where government arts funding is all but non-existent. “The government lumps arts with sport and youth affairs,” says Wambui Kamiru, the founder and owner of the Art Space gallery in Nairobi, who has exhibited some of the Brush Tu artists. “Artists just don’t speak up in the way that sports do, so they get ignored.”
“This is an unusual approach in a nation where government arts funding is all but non-existent. “The government lumps arts with sport and youth affairs,”Wambui Kamiru, the founder and owner of the Art Space gallery in Nairobi
The difficulty of accessing funding may explain why Kenya’s art scene still lags behind its continental rivals South Africa and Nigeria in global exposure. It is hard to build a reputation without publicity, despite the success of a few names, such as Nairobi-based contemporary artist Michael Soi, who received a helping hand from actress Lupita Nyong’o when she posted a picture of herself on Facebook carrying one his hand-painted canvas tote bags.
Brush Tu started after Maina and a friend, Michael Musyoka, had been helping a third artist, David Thuku, to paint theatre backdrops and murals. “We just clicked and decided we wanted to do more together,” says Musyoka. “We thought we needed space to put our artworks, so why not get a residential house.” Since then, the venture has grown. Two more artists joined the collective at the beginning of 2015, prompting a move to the current, larger, premises, and the five members now offer short-term residencies to other artists.
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