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.
"There's huge interest that wasn't here even five years ago," said Wambui Kamiru, a conceptual artist who opened The Art Space gallery last month. "Now you can go to a whole week's worth of art events in Nairobi."
At Circle's auction this month at a five-star Nairobi hotel, the top-selling work, a painting by Ugandan artist Geoffrey Mukasa, went for $15,656. The sale also featured Ethiopia's Dawit Abebe, Uganda's Eli Kyeyune and Sudan's Rashid Diab.
"What is being produced here is just as good as anywhere else in Africa," said auctioneeer Dendy Easton, formerly of Sotheby's. "It's really very good value."
Mary Anne Fitzgerald, who bought paintings for an unnamed buyer in Hong Kong, described the East African art on offer as "under-appreciated and undervalued".
Riding the growing popularity, there are proposals to convert the elegant National Archives building in downtown Nairobi into a National Gallery. The newly refurbished National Theatre will eventually include an arts complex.
Kenyan art, once largely reliant on foreigners, now finds more Kenyan buyers as a wealthier middle class emerges. Soi, known for trenchant political paintings, said he had many more Kenyan browsers at his studio than a few years ago.
Social media has helped him, particularly after an image of Kenyan actress and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o holding one of his hand-painted canvas bags circulated on Twitter and Facebook.
Since then, he has earned $23,000 from selling the bags and related items. He said many customers are African-American women who buy from online stores such as the handicraft site Etsy.com.
"It's like a constant exhibition going on the web," Soi said from his studio in a converted warehouse. "I can say that I make a very comfortable living on art."
Editing by Edmund Blair, Michael Roddy and Ralph Boulton