East Africa’s thriving arts center

The work of Kenyan painter Paul Auditi was exhibited at the first East African Art Auction

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe reveals the often overlooked artistic talents from the eastern part of the African continent.

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Over the years, the cultural spotlight in Africa seems to be stubbornly concentrated in the west or south of the African continent, rather than East Africa.

However, from Sudan and Ethiopia to Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania, this huge, ancient and multifaceted region is full of unique history, people and stories.

Most of this cultural charm is concentrated in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, which has become a creative center.

The city has an annual East African art auction, which is the largest in the region since 2013. Despite fierce competition from Cape Town and Lagos, this auction put the city on the map of African contemporary art.

Nairobi is also an anchor for people fleeing conflict in the region. In the process, they created one of the most exciting art scenes on the African continent.

Sudanese artist Eltayeb Dawelbait is one such person, who took refuge in the city after escaping from Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarian regime and the hostile environment of Sudanese artistic expression.

In the twenty years of Eltayeb living in Nairobi, his art works have been able to flourish and have achieved amazing results.

Working in his studio in the Westland district of the city, his works are inspired by his growing up in rural Sudan and his daily encounters in Nairobi, through portraits or simple objects he found or recovered.

For example, in his 2019 work Encounter, he depicted male and female forms painted on a set of doors found in Nairobi fabrics. These paints are natural and mixed by himself.

He is known for his creative use of these materials, not only resurrecting these objects from his beloved Nairobi, but also reimagining their history through his artistic practice.

“You will find a lot of different artists from all over the world living in Nairobi. It’s very inspiring-you can see new styles of new artists every day, which makes me very happy and encourages me,” when I interviewed him He told me to The most recent episode of Stance, A podcast about art and culture.

Eltayeb is not alone.

Ethiopian artist Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos has created vivid and wonderful works in this city. These works usually examine the human form through portraits.

In addition to Nairobi, throughout East Africa, creative people are also shaping a new cultural palette, fusing ancient history with contemporary reality.

In Mogadishu, Italian-born Somali architect Omar Degan is revisiting the recent history of the war-torn city.

Through his practice and contemporary records of destroyed monuments and buildings, we have a different view of Mogadishu—not only the shell of a city synonymous with war, but also a city rooted in ancient times. , Colonial and post-colonial period of unique architectural heritage composed of cities.

When we met on Stance, he talked about the conflict in Somalia not only destroying buildings and roads, but also destroying the “sense of belonging”. For him, in order to reproduce all of this, the Somalis need buildings “that they think are their own”.

This flourishing cultural export has also attracted attention in the West.The Ethiopian writer Meron Hadero (Meron Hadero) who lives in the United States became the first Won the prestigious AKO Caine African Writing Award.

The judges described her short story “Sweeping the Street” as “completely free of self-pity” and said it “changed the lens” of the usual clichés. The story tells the story of an Ethiopian boy named Getu, who has to deal with pressure-filled power dynamics in the capital Addis Ababa’s NGOs and foreign aid.

Last year, Maaza Mengiste, another Ethiopian writer living in the United States, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his outstanding novel “The Shadow King”. It is set during the occupation of Ethiopia by Fascist Italy in 1935, and focuses on the life of a female soldier.

Hadero’s award follows Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, who won the United Kingdom or British Resident of Color in May for her novel “The First Woman” The writer’s Jalak Literary Prize, the novel tells the story of a young girl’s coming of age during the brutal reign of Idi Amin in Uganda.

In 2020, the well-known American Somali chef Hawa Hassan released the critically acclaimed cookbook In Bibi’s Kitchen, which focused on the cuisine of East Africa and made the region on the international cuisine map.

At the same time, the Royal College of Art in London is currently holding a large-scale exhibition of Kenyan-born figurative painter Michael Armitage.

His eye-catching, lush and magical exhibition brings together 15 large-scale paintings of his recent years, which reveal the people, stories and landscapes of East Africa.

The exhibition also displays the works of other East African contemporary artists, such as Asaph Ng’ethe Macua, Meek Gichugu and Sane Wadu.

Despite these recent successes, the cultural weight of East Africa is still underestimated, and most of the media’s attention continues to focus on wars, conflicts, and displacement.

This regrettably misses the cultural growth of the cities in the region, from Addis Ababa to Khartoum to Mogadishu-although the city has been traumatized by the war, it now hosts a literary festival , A new art museum and theater.

I have traveled extensively in this area, from Dar es Salaam and Mombasa to Hargeisa. I am always shocked by how many talented artists, writers and musicians there are, and because their works need to be better known and appreciated. And shocked.

This is a region full of creativity, imagination and boldness, which deserves recognition and celebration.

More letters from Africa:

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