Aspirations for the East African Art World

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Danda Jaroljmek is one of the founding directors of Circle Art Agency, an East African art consultancy. She has been working in the East African art scene for 15 years. She has gained valuable insight on the East African art scene and how it is different from the rest of Africa.

Danda set up Circle of Art Agency in Kenya at the end of 2012. Their focus is on building a local audience for East African art.  Today, she shares with us her aspirations to expand international knowledge of East African art.


A Rich Context of East African Art

East African art is very diverse. Its context differs from country to country. Every country has a very different art history, background of training, etc.

In Kenya, there is no art school. Many artists are self-taught. In Tanzania, the art scene is less developed than its peers. But they have Tinga Tinga art, one of the most widely represented forms of tourist-oriented art. It was originally created by Edward Tinga Tinga, an artist practicing in the 1970s.

Uganda has an excellent art school set up in the 1950s that provides where most of the practicing artists comes from the art school. Ethiopia also has an excellent art school, and the art scene is very developed. In Rwanda, the artists are driving the scene, trying to gain exposure.

Despite all these differences, there is some commonality…

In the global art scene, there is still very little information about East African art, compared to West and South Africa.

An Auction House for East African Art

Circle Art Agency established the first annual East Africa Art Auction in Nairobi, Kenya, 3 years ago. African art can a be found in auctions such as Bonhams: Africa Now in London. Bonhams is one of the world’s largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. I believe that a large percentage of their buyers are from Africa, mainly Nigerians bidding for Nigerian art. They are steadily increasing their representation of East African art.

Bonhams often host a charity event a day before each Africa Now auction. The charity would be conducted under a country theme. Three years ago, Circle Art Agency sent a small collection of contemporary Kenyan art to Bonhams. The pieces did very well in the auction.

We asked for advice from Giles Peppiatt, Director of Bonhams: Africa Now. We all believed that an auction might be a new platform here in Kenya. It would encourage local bidders to bid for East African art. We have been very successful since then.


Understanding the Market for East African Art

I used to believe that the majority of Kenyan art was bought by foreigners with some art leaving the country. But since we entered the business, we discovered the increasing number of Kenyan art collectors. Some buy discreetly thus we don’t have statistics.

Most of the Kenyans at our auctions are high-net-worth members of the business community. People participating at auctions differ slightly from the people visiting galleries. Auction bidders are there to buy and enjoy the competition, not just to view the art.

At a price range of between US$1,000 – 18,000, East African art is still quite affordable. The average prices are between US$2,000 – 5,000. This is not much in the international art world.


Ongoing bidding at the Circle Art Auction

Ongoing bidding at the Circle Art Auction


Customers of East African Art

One of the things that we have done through the auction is to re-introduce some modern artists into the East African art scene. These artists have had quite a lot of success with buyers. Buyers who were more interested in the historical pieces, are now also interested in contemporary works.

Nairobi, Kenya is a fast-growing emerging market. There is huge amount of international traction. Of course, the East African art market hasn’t reached the heights of Nigeria or South Africa. But there is definitely a large group of high-net-worth individuals in Kenya interested in collecting art.

We have international buyers from Britain, USA and Dubai as well. Organisations like us are working hard to give East African art a well-deserved international profile. That is why we do high end exhibitions and annual auctions in Kenya.

We maintain a website, publish exhibition catalogs and 1,000 hard copy catalogs for each auction. We work hard to make sure that people know about us and East African art.

We also participate in international African art fairs. This year, we participated in the Cape Town Art Fair. We were also one of the three African galleries at Art15. Art15 is the third edition of London’s global art fair. We have plans for three more fairs in 2016 if we can raise the money. We know that we have to reach out to different countries and bring East African art to the global art market.

We have collectors who are interested in modern artists (1970s to 2000) who mainly painters and sculptors. But there has been a growing interest worldwide in contemporary work, such as lens-based media, performance etc.

There are plenty of artists in the region who are in need of exposure and opportunities. The market, whilst growing, is still relatively small. We have to work very hard to build the market, to increase the number of serious buyers. We need to encourage serious art collectors alongside those who buy occasionally for their homes or offices.


Our Aspirations

We want East African art to be on a level platform with the rest of the world and be taken seriously. We have excellent artists. But, we lack the institutions and professionals to support these artists. We need more international opportunities for them. We need spaces like Circle Art Agency that support them; residencies, exhibitions and study.

Opportunities like these will allow East African artists to be seen on the international stage and make the global art world more aware of East African art.


Crowd at Circle Art Gallery featuring some of the best East African art pieces

Crowd at Circle Art Gallery featuring some of the best East African art pieces