Auction houses, wealthy Kenyans boost East African art scene

Sat Nov 14, 2015 7:38am EST
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By Edith Honan

NAIROBI (Reuters) - With growing interest from international auction houses and a flourishing gallery scene at home, East African art is catching on with global collectors and a new generation of local buyers.

Artists such as Kenyan painter Michael Soi are now fixtures at auction house Bonhams's Africa Now annual contemporary art sale in London. The Circle Art Agency's auction of East African art in Nairobi fetched more than $190,000 in sales earlier this month.

East Africa may lag the continent's art powerhouses South Africa or Nigeria -- where pieces can fetch five to 10 times as much -- but experts say East African art has attracted increasing interest in the past few years.

Kenyan artists like sculptor Cyrus Kabiru, known for his whimsical eyeglasses, and Miriam Syowia Kyambi, who creates multimedia installations, feature regularly in European shows.

"The development of modern and contemporary African art certainly is one of the most exciting parts of the art market at the moment," said Giles Peppiatt, director of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Bonhams.

After taking a few years to catch the eye of European and North American collectors, he said interest was "phenomenal".

Art buyers cite affordability -- a painting by a well known local artist can sell for a few thousand dollars -- and intimacy; buyers can easily meet artists in their studios.

At the leafy Kuona Trust in Nairobi, several dozen artists work in old shipping containers converted into studios, while their work is displayed in more than a dozen professional galleries scattered around the Kenyan capital.   Continued...

People are seen at a stall at the Kenya Art Fair 2015 exhibition at the Sarit Centre in Kenya's capital Nairobi November 14, 2015.  REUTERS/Noor Khamis