“Why are foreigners the ones collecting most of your paintings?”
I asked the above question to Kinuthia Mbugua, a Kenyan impressionist based at Nairobi’s Maasai Mbili Art Gallery. The response he gave me also provided an answer to what was going to be my next question, “Why do many Kenyan artists appear to achieve recognition only after they’ve moved abroad?”
“Foreigners, especially Westerners, appreciate art more than locals (Kenyans) because the kind of art that I do is ingrained in their culture. Their ancestors are famous for applying paint on canvass and this kind of art is sort of in their DNA,” Mbugua replied.
“Are you saying that the Africans of yore were not artistic?” I quizzed further.
“Far from it,” Mbuthia said. “Since creation, men have always embraced art and Africans are no different. Prior to the colonial period, Africans made a lot of artwork both for decorative and utility purposes. We would make masks for our spiritual leaders, gourds, and pots for our meals, and decorate spears and shields in readiness for war. We did not, however, paint on canvass and hung such paintings on our walls. Neither did we employ graffiti as a form of protest against our rulers. Painting on canvas and graffiti is what I do, and those brought up in cultures that invented this form of art tend to be the biggest buyers of my art.”
I asked him why he doesn’t create artworks that, according to him, will identify more with his ‘African Roots’, and his answer was surprising. “I don’t know how to. Not many African artists do.”
Mbuthia goes ahead to explain that in the Kenyan education system, the arts curriculum has largely been pasted from Western countries and little effort has been made to design a curriculum that is ‘authentic’ to African art. “I studied Fine Arts at the University, but it equipped me with skills to pander to the palates of a Parisian rather than those of a Nairobian,” he explained.
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