‘Visual Voices’ chronicles reality of Kenyan art
Visual Voices: the Work of over 50 Contemporary Artists in Kenya’ is a tome that may soon be seen as canonical, a ‘must-have’ for every university and public library having even a slight interest in Africa, leave alone contemporary Kenyan art.
Susan Wakhungu-githuku’s voluminous 650-page text with its 400 colour images, including Anthony Okello’s stunning ‘Masquerade’ mask on the cover, documents Kenya’s contemporary art scene admirably.
No less than 57 of Kenya’s leading artists are chronicled both photographically and biographically in the book. With photography by professionals like Bobby Pall, James Muriuki and Bedad Mwangi, this Footprints Press (FP) publication is one of the most dazzling that Ms Githuku’s produced since she launched FP in 2010.
It’s also a book that’s bound to decimate the myth that there’s ‘nothing’ happening artistically in Kenya and that the only contemporary African art is coming out of West or South Africa.
Providing tangible evidence that Kenya’s art world is vibrant, innovative and diverse, the only problem the book has is that it could not capture all the artistry currently overflowing in the country today.
But leaving aside the issue of what Visual Voices does not include, one point to the publisher’s credit is that it confirms not only the reality of contemporary Kenyan art but also its longevity. This it does by including artists who were practising as far back as the 1950s and 1960s in the book.
That means that Elimo Njau, Yony Waite, Ancent Soi, Jak Katarikawe and the late Samwel Wanjau are all featured in the book.
And like all the others, their pages contain a full-page portrait photo followed by another full-page of biographical text and no less than six separate pages of either paintings, drawings, sculptures or photographs reflecting the artist’s best work.
Equally, what further reveals the rich diversity of the current art scene is the variety of media that artists employ.
They work with everything from charcoal, pencil, acrylic and oil paints applied on anything from well-primed canvas, linen, paper or plywood to Lubugo bark cloth, galvanised metal sheets or even glass. The sculptures also are created in multi-media as artists work with everything from wood, scrap metal and stoneware to bronze, steel, resin and fibre glass.
Finally, the issue of gender balance is one that the publisher has clearly sought to address. She could not quite make the balance since there are only 15 women artists out of the 57 represented in Visual Voices.
Nonetheless, these 15 are all committed ‘creatives’ who have consistently proved they can hold their own well in what is still a predominantly maledominated visual art world.
In this regard, I must commend Ms Githuku for daring to publish such a timely and comprehensive book. It’s a treasure trove that is bound to transform lives of untold African artists who’ll be inspired by what they see and ‘hear’ from these articulate visual voices.
ART ‘Visual Voices’ by Susan Wakhungugithuku.