The center of the burgeoning art scene in East Africa


Kenyan painter Paul Odete looks at his work displayed at the first commercial auction of East African art on November 4, 2013 in Nairobi, on the eve of the auction.

The works of Kenyan painter Paul Oditi were displayed at the first art auction in East Africa

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einash highlights the often-overlooked artistic talent coming from the east of the continent.

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For many years, the cultural spotlight in Africa seemed to focus stubbornly on the west or south of the continent rather than East Africa.

However, from Sudan and Ethiopia to Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania, this large, ancient and multifaceted region abounds with unique history, peoples and stories.

Much of this cultural vibrancy is concentrated in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, which has emerged as a creative hub.

The city boasts the annual East African Art Auction, the largest in the region that has been held since 2013. This auction has put the city on the map of contemporary art in Africa despite stiff competition from Cape Town and Lagos.

Nairobi is also a fulcrum for those fleeing conflict across the region. In the process, they created one of the most exciting art scenes on the continent.

One of these is the good Sudanese artist Dolbet, who took refuge in the city after fleeing the authoritarian regime of Omar al-Bashir and an environment hostile to artistic expression in Sudan.

In the past two decades, El-Tayeb has lived in Nairobi, and his artwork has been able to thrive with amazing results.

Working from his studio in the city’s Westlands area, his work is inspired by his rural Sudanese upbringing and the daily encounters he encounters in Nairobi through photographs or just objects he found or recycled.

For example, in his 2019 article, he depicts the male and female figure painted on a set of doors unearthed in Nairobi fabric, the paints are natural, and he mixes them himself.

He is famous for his innovative use of such materials, not only reviving these objects obtained from his beloved Nairobi, but also re-imagining its history through his artistic practice.

He told me when I interviewed him for A recent episode of the situationPodcast on arts and culture.

And the good is not alone.

Ethiopian artist Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos has worked in the city to create vivid and fascinating pieces that study the human form, often through portraits.

Outside Nairobi, across East Africa, creators are also forging a new cultural canvas, fusing ancient history with contemporary realities.

In Mogadishu, Italian-born Somali architect Omar Degan re-examines the recent history of a city ravaged by war.

Through his practice and contemporary documentation of ruins and buildings, we get a different view of Mogadishu – not just a shell of a city synonymous with war, but a city made up of a unique architectural heritage rooted in antiquity, colonial and post-colonial times. times.

When we met at the stand, he talked about the conflict in Somalia not only destroying buildings and roads, but also destroying a “sense of belonging”. For him, in order to recreate all this in particular, the Somalis need buildings that they “consider their own”.

This burgeoning cultural production has been observed in the West as well. US-based Ethiopian writer Myron Hadro becomes the first person to move from her country Won the prestigious AKO Caine Prize for African Writing.

The jury called her short story, Much of The Street Sweep, “totally self-pitying,” and said it “turns the lens” on the usual cliché. It is about an Ethiopian boy named Geto, who has to deal with the perilous power dynamics of NGOs and foreign aid in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Last year, US-based Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste was nominated for a Booker Prize for her brilliant novel The Shadow King. Set during the fascist Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1935, the film focuses on the lives of female fighters.

The Hadro Prize comes on the heels of Ugandan Jennifer Nansuboga Makombe, who in May won the Jhalak Literary Prize for British or British writers of color with her novel The First Woman, an upcoming story of a young girl set during the brutal Idi rule. Amin in Uganda.

And in 2020, US-based celebrity Somali chef Hawa Hassan released a critically acclaimed Bibi’s Kitchen cookbook highlighting East African cuisine and putting the region on the global culinary map.

Meanwhile, the Royal Academy of Arts in London is currently hosting a major exhibition of Kenyan-born plastic painter Michael Armitage.

His amazing, fascinating and magical exhibition brings together 15 of his huge paintings from recent years that break up the people, stories and landscapes of East Africa.

This gallery also includes works by other contemporary East African artists such as Asaph Ng’ethe Macua, Meek Gichugu, and Sane Wadu.

Despite these recent successes, East Africa remains undervalued for its cultural weight, with much media attention continuing to focus on war, conflict and displacement.

This is sadly missing from the cultural growth taking place in cities across the region, from Addis Ababa, to Khartoum to Mogadishu – a city, despite its war scars that now hosts a literary festival, art museum and new theatre.

I travel extensively in this region from Dar es Salaam and Mombasa to Hargeisa and have always been amazed at the number of brilliant artists, writers and musicians that are here, as well as the need for their works to be widely known and appreciated.

It is an area full of creative glow, imagination and boldness that deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

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