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Travel Notes

Nairobi art scene: Between a bleeding soul and enigmatic hidden gems

Nairobi has always had most of its true gems completely hidden. This is an interesting option as discovering hidden things always feels like an adventure, the thrill of the finder.
Mural by BSQ crew featured at the Old Railway Museum

Mural by BSQ crew (@bsq_crew) featured at the Old Railway Museum, Nairobi, Kenya


Guest post by Emmaus Kimani @e_kimani

"...this place feels like Berlin!"

someone said while referring to the Brush Tu Art Studio in late 2017. I had never been to Berlin by then, but from their tone it was clearly a complement. I had also heard enough about this soulful multicultural city so full of artists it now apparently needed protection from over gentrification! In contrast, Nairobi has always had most of its true gems completely hidden, unlike the artist capital of Europe. This is an interesting option as discovering hidden things always feels like an adventure, the thrill of the finder. Although, I personally think this hide-and-sick game might be a bit too much in Nairobi, and it’s working more against the artists than for them. You may have already heard of the nightlife in Westlands from spaces such as the Alchemist, J's and the likes that are often full of expats trying to catch glimpses of the vibes of this great metropolis. Yet there's so much that exists within the same city that would blow your mind away that you are still completely oblivious to.

I have been to Berlin severally now; and in the hidden studio of Cashmear Radio in mid 2019 I saw exactly what that guy, who first made the comparison, meant. While Nairobi may not be able to wear its heart on its sleeve like Berlin, it should try to share more glimpses of its magic -- for its own sake as a sort of capital of East (and Central) Africa, and the cultural hub that it is. Here, when you say you're an artist, the likely assumption is that you sing; but there is a whole world of amazing hidden groups of visual artists and even more of performance artists that live and work in Nairobi. Berlin has its statistics and can talk of something like five thousand plus creatives calling it their home; Nairobi doesn’t, it operates on anecdotes, which hurts the situation even further because of how invisible these magic makers are.

This lack of visibility is amplified by the fact that the majority of thelocal artists operate without websites or much other ways of being found. With the right guide, however, Nairobi shines full of magic and magicians. From the artists living by the edges of the Nairobi National Park's 'Silole Sanctuary' to those thriving in Kiambu; from the collectives in Eastlands including BabaDogo, Dandora, Komarock, Buruburu, Jericho and Jerusalem, to the artists in Mukuru. Some of the much older, established art spaces like the Kuona Artist Collective or the Kobo Trust -- so central, conveniently accessible and holding some great established -- are still invisible to the art lovers. The Godown Arts Centre was the home of the performance artists, contemporary dancers and the like, but is currently under remaking to a mega facility, whose visibility we hope will work for the artists sake. And right in the Nairobi Central Business District, in the space occupied by the Railways museum lives the Dust Depo and a whole group of Graffiti and other artists. And a twist to the story -- this space includes the longest wall of allowed graffiti you can find around these sides.

A few of these artists, finally established, get to show with the few big star galleries that still exist in Nairobi which are definitely worth a visit, not just for the artists that they represent but also for the gems they are for their ambient and beautiful, differently developed personalities. From Red Hill Art Gallery in Limuru, which is a breath of fresh air and my personalfavorite, to One Off Contemporary Gallery and its unique sculpture garden (off Limuru Rd, On Roselyn Lone Tree Road), to the Village Market (also on Limuru Road), which has one of the most beautiful commercial spaces that can and is regularly commissioned to hold art and does so brilliantly. On the other side of town, across Waiyaki Way, Circle Art Agency has a small-large white cube. It’s small only relative to other spaces and large because of what they do with it; it’s from this gallery that East African artists take off into the world stage in international art fairs; it’s also this gallery that hosts the famous annual East African Art Auction. Aside from the formal galleries, many new art collectives are popping up across Nairobi, establishing their own showing spaces too, or creating them afresh whenever the need arises. Occasionally, a range of supportive collectors also host showing exhibitions in their homes.

If you know you will know, and all you have to do is be connected. You don't have to worry because people like me and space like this, where you're reading this post from, do exist. We are here to guide you through it all, help you find it, the magic before the magicians put up signs. Sometimes I wonder though if they should make themselves visible, not for my sake even if I'm clearly benefiting from being a guide. For the sake of the enigma, the thrill of discovery that you would be missing out on, and for the sake of the quiet time that they have with their invisibility that shelters them, helps them make the magic we all seek to feed from... But this is a whole another story...

Emmaus Kimani is a creative consultant, photographer, a philosopher and an artist, who spends a lot of time discovering artists and art spaces for the visitors and residents of Nairobi and shining the light on the creativity and creatives in Kenya. He takes a bias to artistic and cultural fields from performance to visual art and film. Emmaus also works in publishing and marketing of art and cultural productions, majoring in marketing and communication.