African Art in London

London / Art / Africa

Leave a comment

Cyrus Kabiru workshop @ V22 Summer Club

Cyrus Kabiru

On his first visit to the UK, star Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru is leading an experimental workshop, Found in Deptford, as part of the V22 Summer Club. Swapping Nairobi for the streets of South London, Kabiru and local artist Richard Parry will accompany participants on a forage around Deptford Market, before heading back to V22 in Bermondsey to create sculptures and explore ideas thrown up by the objects collected. According to the organisers, the workshop aims to develop a “dialogue between place, context and perception”, by exploring how the objects might suggest alternative stories and strategies of place-making.

A more creative response to place (and what constitutes being ‘out of place’) might have been helpful during  the debacle surrounding Kabiru’s recent visa application to the UK, the details of which have been recorded by his UK agent Ed Cross Fine Art here (and also appeared in this rather woolly article by Ian Birrell in the Independent). Kabiru was supposed to come and collect his recently awarded TEDGlobal fellowship in Edinburgh last month, but was denied a visa by the British High Commission in Nairobi. Although they subsequently reversed their decision, it was too late for him to attend the award ceremony. Edinburgh’s loss is London’s gain (and fortunately, Kabiru will be able collect his award at a later date in Los Angeles) but really, this should never have happened.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the visa restrictions on visiting artists, as well as a campaign to get them changed, have a look at the Manifesto Club’s Visiting Artists Campaign, and their recent statement on progress.

Workshop: Friday 20th July, 15.00-19.30

Price: £14 plus booking fee

Booking details: go to the eventbrite page

Location: meet at Deptford Railway Station at 3pm

Leave a comment

Kivuthi Mbuno @ HOME studio (MASK benefit)

On Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd July, artist Alla Tkachuk will be opening her HOME studio in Pimlico to show (and hopefully sell) ten works by painter Kivuthi Mbuno, as well as some works of her own. Mbuno’s work has been exhibited internationally, including at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

50% of profits from the sale will go to MASK (Mobile Art School in Kenya), a charity focusing on creative education in Africa, which Tkachuk founded and of which Mbuno is a patron.

For further info, call 07957734313 or email .

Sale: 21st and 22nd July

Opening hours: 13.00-19.00

3A Alderney Street, Pimlico, London

Leave a comment

John Kenny @ 3 Befordbury Gallery

Emon, Turkana elder, Sarima April 2011 (2011) - John Kenny

Parts of East Africa are currently suffering the effects of one of the worst food crises in decades, with around 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Worst hit is Somalia, where at least six areas are now suffering from famine, but Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are also severely affected by food shortages and spiralling numbers of refugees. Dadaab, a camp close to the Somalian border which has a population of 400,000, is the world’s largest refugee complex and now Kenya’s third largest city. Reports suggest that conditions are dire, with little hope of improvement in the near future.

How have things got this bad? The ongoing drought is clearly an immediate suspect, but many are arguing that there’s far more to it than that: famines are man-made. Depending on who you ask, it’s the fault of  a decade of post 9/11 US foreign policy creating instability in the region; it’s the result of local corruption which siphons off food aid for the profit of unscrupulous businessmen; it’s Somalia’s long-term political chaos and the extremist al-Qaida affiliated al-Shabaab rebels controlling much of southern Somalia, where the trouble threatens to spill over into Kenya. Depending on who you ask, there’s not enough aid, and we need to send more; or there’s too much aid, and beyond immediate emergency relief money, we shouldn’t be sending it at all. Perhaps there are some contradictory truths in all of these arguments, but most pressing during the current crisis is the point that while refugees continue to pour into north and east Kenya, and the drought continues, emergency aid isn’t getting to where it’s needed, often for political reasons.

Meanwhile, the photographer John Kenny has a new exhibition at 3 Bedfordbury Gallery, Facing Uncertainty: Portraits from Kenya, which opened yesterday. The show presents pictures taken in the spring this year in the northern lowlands of Kenya, including portraits of members of the Samburu, Turkana and Rendille ethnic groups. I’ve seen Kenny’s photographs before, and there’s no doubt that they’re exceptionally beautiful and well-crafted, and he is clearly passionate about his work. With his artist’s prerogative, Kenny is more interested in personal encounters with remarkable individuals than political critique; his portraits are both impressive and intimate, and part of me is looking forward to seeing the latest series.

I do have some hesitations, however. The show’s blurb focuses on the ‘climatic uncertainties’ threatening the livelihoods of the people in Kenny’s images, and there’s no question that this is a major challenge facing those in the drylands in this area, increasing competition over scarce resources. But I wonder what lies behind Kenny’s acknowledgment of the ‘escalation of armed conflict between tribal groups’. I’m no expert, and I don’t know to what extent the problems faced by the artist’s subjects are connected with the wider situation that is unfolding in the region, but I’d like to know more. What kind of recognition do these people’s interests and conflicts get against the wider backdrop of encroaching famine and political unrest, which despite their urgency have apparently received a sluggish response from the Kenyan government? Away from the battleground of Somalia, are drought and climate change really the main problem, or are they still simply a distraction from ongoing political issues? The show promises to present the views of Samburu people on climate change and how it is affecting them, so I look forward to hearing their take on how they fit into the bigger picture.

More generally, the ethics of photographing famine and poverty are fraught with difficulty, and I’m not sure that Kenny’s explanation of his work (on his website, at least) fully deals with some of these issues. It would be interesting to hear more about his views on the political and ethical responsibilities and opportunities offered by photography, and how he places his own work within the history of documentary photography in Africa. The people in Kenny’s portraits project pride and intelligence, thoughtfulness and determination, making his work a welcome antidote to the all too frequent (and arguably unhelpful) media images of destitute and starving Africans, which fail to show the bigger picture. But by presenting many of his subjects as pure human forms, devoid of any physical setting, perhaps Kenny’s work also obscures the political complexities of the very challenging realities that he wants to explore in the region, which, in the current context, might be the most valuable work of all.

If you can’t make it to the show, there’s a clunky slideshow from the Independent here.

There’s some interesting debate from David Campbell and commenters about how famine is represented and photographed here,  here and here.

For some interesting thoughts from an artist-photographer on the struggle to produce humane portraits of people living with challenging circumstances, it’s worth checking out South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa’s work: see for example this interview with scholar and curator Okwui Enwezor.

Update: I made it along to the show today. The photographs are accompanied by wall texts with detailed snippets about some of the individuals featured in the photographs and how Kenny met them, as well as background information about their way of life and how this is being affected by climate change, from their point of view. There’s also some more information provided about how Kenny positions his work, and his twin aims: first, to share his experiences of spending time with these communities and present visual aspects of their cultures, and second, to explain the challenges they are currently facing.

The photographs are stunning – rich with detail, and totally fascinating for anyone like me who has little knowledge of the clothing and hairstyles worn in these areas – but I stand by my initial doubts about the ability of portraits like these to ‘explain’ things. The additional information provided in the exhibition goes a long way to achieving this, and is especially good at presenting the perspectives of the Samburu people and their approach to preserving their traditions whilst meeting change head-on. But while local stories come across well, there’s no mention of the broader political context, and in the commercially-saturated surroundings of Covent Garden, in the face of such arresting visual material, it’s easy to see how the explanatory notes may be easily detached and quickly forgotten about. The question of how to portray complex realities with photographic images remains unanswered. 

If you’ve got this far, and/or you’ve seen the show, I’d welcome thoughts and comments. Also, one of the main aims of the exhibition is to raise money for people in the region develop more secure sources of food, water and income, as well as improving education and healthcare, which seems worthwhile and is apparently welcomed in the communities in question. Charities benefitting from the show and working locally are CIFA Kenya, the BOMA project and Concern Worldwide).  

Weds 21st Sept – Sat 3rd Oct

Opening hours:
Daily 12am-6pm
Closed Mon 26th

3 Bedfordbury
Covent Garden, London


Joseph Bertiers @ Fred [London] Ltd

Cats Painting Center (?) - Joseph Bertiers

After a flurry of Africa-related shows last year, Fred [London] is back on the case, this time with an exhibition from Kenyan painter and sculptor Joseph Bertiers. This is the artist’s first European solo show, and comes just weeks after four of his works found their way – via the Art Basel satellite show Volta 7 – into the renowned (if somewhat controversial) collection of one Jean Pigozzi.

Pigozzi’s Contemporary African Art Collection is the largest in the world, and works from his hoard get everywhere – even into Tate Modern – so it’s definitely a coup of sorts for Bertiers, and for Fred. But I’m not quite sure how this tallies with Fred’s goal of developing a platform that is ‘not tailored to the concerns of a Western market, but which focuses on the social and political debates engaging African artists today’…  first, is it too much to hope that the Western market and African socio-political issues might, on occasion, come into alignment? (This is not to credit Pigozzi with socio-political awareness, but to try not to tar all collectors and dealers with the same brush; in some ways, it’s getting more difficult to separate out the ‘African’ and ‘Western’ markets anyhow…) Second, what happens if, having distanced yourself from what you consider to be the Western market, that market’s top buyer (a.k.a. Pigozzi) turns up and declares his intention to buy work from you? ‘A sale’ (or four) is clearly the answer, and understandably so, but where does this leave the gallery’s well-intentioned emphasis on Africa-centred business and curatorial practice? This is not the place to rehearse the well-documented reservations many people have with Pigozzi’s ‘neo-primitivist’ approach, but it’d be interesting to hear the gallery’s response to some of the tensions raised here.

Anyway, art world politics aside, it’s great to see Bertiers making strides after his recent run of bad luck, and I look forward to investigating his Brueghel-esque canvases up at Vyner Street soon.

1st Sept – 9th Oct

Opening hours:
Weds-Sun, 12-6
or by appointment

Fred [London] Ltd
45 Vyner Street, London
E2 9DQ

Leave a comment

Charles Sekano: The House of Women @ Ed Cross

Charles Sekano (2009)

In a new show opening tomorrow night at Ed Cross, South African painter and musician Charles Sekano continues his exploration of loss and womanhood with a series of canvases entitled ‘House of Women’.

Exiled from his native South Africa in his early twenties as a result of apartheid, Sekano lived and painted in Nairobi until his return to a newly liberated SA in 1997. Reflecting on his years in exile and the artistic practice they inspired, Sekano once said, “This Woman theme is my landscape. The only piece of property I own. Woman is the only country I have.”

Private View: 10th February, 6.30-9.30

Opening hours:
11-18 Feb
Mon-Sat, 11-5

and then by appointment until 31st March.

Ed Cross Fine Art Ltd
5 Talbot Road, Notting Hill, London
W2 5JE

Leave a comment

Peterson Kamwathi: Matter of Record

Untitled woodcut print (2010) - Peterson Kamwathi

The first London solo show from rising star Peterson Kamwathi opens this Wednesday at Ed Cross Fine Art in Aldgate. The exhibition promises to bring together works in a variety of media, including woodcut prints and charcoal drawings, which combine conceptual sophistication with technical skill. I especially like his sheep and bull series, but works featuring human subjects are also impressive for their brooding atmosphere and stark depiction of Kenyan political realities; Kamwathi has a strong interest in exploring socio-political concerns, and  has stated: “in my work I strive to address and document issues that affect and impact my country, my continent and now the planet.” Be sure to check out his work while you can.

The show continues until 20th November.

Opening hours:
Tues-Sat, 10-6
Open until 9 on Nov 4th for First Thursdays.

Ed Cross Fine Art Ltd
2nd Floor, The Hive, 20 Buckle Street, London
E1 8EH

P.S. This show is presented with the support of The African Arts Trust – more on this later…

Leave a comment

Imani and others at the BFI London Film Festival


Imani (2010) - dir. Caroline Kamya


Thanks to a tip-off from my friends at African Screens, were I in London during the upcoming 54th BFI London Film Festival, I’d be sure to check out Imani, the debut feature film  from Caroline Kamya, about a day in the life of a former child soldier, a maid and a hip-hop dancer in Kampala. You can read an interview with the director here and find out about screenings here.

Other African film highlights of the festival include:

  • New African Cinema‘: a trio of shorts – The Tunnel, Pumzi and Saint Louis Blues – made through the Africa First mentoring scheme (14/15 Oct)
  • Zimbabwean documentary Shungu: The Resilience of a People (18/19 Oct)
  • Microphone, set in Alexandria’s underground music scene, the second feature from director Ahmad Abdalla after last year’s Heliopolis (18/19/20 Oct)
  • a story of love and war set in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Relentless (20/21 Oct)
  • a tale of courage in the face of prejudice in a South African community, Life, Above All (26/27 Oct)