Circle Art Agency is the first arts agency in East Africa based in Nairobi, Kenya. The agency provides a consultancy service for local and international art collectors, and through their gallery providing the region’s most talented artists with greater visibility and increase access to the region’s lively and fast-developing art scene.
Danda Jaroljmek, a Director at the Circle Art Agency, who is also artist, details the role of the agency, the first art auction held in 2013, and the art market.
In the last five years, to 2016, there is evidence of an increase in art collectors in Kenya. This has been documented by various media such as the Financial Times and your agency has had 3 auctions. What is driving this growth and where are they mostly from?
Circle Art Agency has spent the last 4 years in Nairobi focusing on building new collectors in the business community and putting on high end events, the annual Modern and Contemporary East African art auction and pop up exhibitions as well as the gallery. People are seeing the value of art and its investment potential and are spending time getting advice and buying thoughtfully.
Are there artists who are doing very well locally and others who are doing very well internationally?
We have many successful artists whose work is being collected. Some artists have an international market such as Peterson Kamwathi, Ato Malinda, Ephrem Solomon, Geoffrey Mukasa whilst others have a very strong local market but are not yet collected internationally.
Looking at South Africa and Nigeria, what are the differences in the business of art? Also, is there much collaboration taking place in terms of exposing artists from e.g. Kenya to Nigeria? Or is there a need to create such platforms?
In South Africa there is a proper infrastructure for art, national galleries and institutions, art council, government funding for the arts, lottery funding, excellent commercial galleries, and auction houses. In Nigeria there is a strong collector base of Nigerians both living in Nigeria and in the Diaspora that buy Nigerian art. There is not much cross over yet.
Nigeria has many art schools which have led to the growth of many artists and informed many collectors. In Nairobi, we have not had schools that support art. It is also hard to find a lot of Modern art in Kenya, especially from artists from the 60s and 70s, compared to the wealth of Nigerian artists such as Ben Enwonwu, an important artist for Nigerian collectors.
In which international art fairs do you represent Kenya?
This year we are doing or have done, the Cape Town Art Fair, The Armory, New York, Art Dubai, Johannesburg Art Fair, 1:54 London and a new art fair in Paris AKAA (also known as Africa).
Is there an appreciation for your work by Africans and also from the international market?
Yes of course, many of our collectors are African and this is increasing every year as the younger generation of business people return from travel and study and seek out the art scene in Nairobi.
We are trying to cultivate an interest from collectors in Asia, such as South Korea and Japan.
Does Tate in the UK work with Kenya artists? Are there collaboration with Circle Art Gallery and how does the collaboration work?
The Tate Modern set up an Acquisition committee for Africa art some years back and started acquiring work by artists such as Ibrahim el Salahi for their collection. The curators, Kerryn Greenberg and Zoe Whitely are very interested in what is happening on the contemporary art scene across Africa and keep an eye out for new artists on the continent.
Being a growing market, with more artists and more buyers, what are some of the challenges you face in your work?
Being able to afford to participate in the international art fairs as this is expensive for all small African galleries, finding a qualified team as there is no training for arts administrators and curators. There is little documentation of the history of art in this region to help inform new collectors and for our own research.
In 2013, you held the first art auction in East Africa that was in Nairobi. What were the highest sales for that auction?
All the prices in Kenya Shillings (approx. 100 Ksh to 1 US$) are on our website, the highest sales have been $18,000 for Geoffrey Mukasa, Rashid Diab, Eli Kyeyene and Dawit Abebe.
How many pieces of art did you sell? Have you held more auctions?
We always have around 50 lots and sell between 80-90% during the auction. After we saw the success of the first auction, we have held two more in 2014 and 2015
There is a lot of love for Michael Soi and Cyrus Kabiru, why?
Soi’s work appeals to a wide audience from all walks of life because his work describes society, business, corruption, the sex industry, politics in a light hearted easy to understand way with serious undertones. Cyrus’s work is very clever, the story behind the C-Stunners is interesting and his use of found objects is unique.
Are there women participating as artists with their work?
Of course, there are excellent women artists, we have quite a few exciting women artists, many who have gained an international reputation, in fact most of the artists getting opportunities to exhibition and travel outside Kenya are women, such as Syowia Kyambi, Ato Malinda, Beatrice Wanjiku, Rehema Chachage, Jimmy Mali, Jackie Karuti.
There may be less women practicing but they are often more successful international, their work is more performance based and they are risk takers.
What kind of artists or art work is preferred for investment and for collection?
It varies, the modern artists are very collectable and their work is rare and hard to come by, this increases its investment potential such as Edward Tinga Tinga, Geoffrey Mukasa. Also some of the exceptional Kenyan artists whose work is not prolific are very collectable too, such as Ephrem Solomon, Peterson Kamwathi and Dawit Abebe. Also people will always want a great painting, institutions and museums are more likely to by video and installation but individuals mainly collect paintings.
What is required to enable art in the region to develop and what kind of development would you want to see in this industry?
A larger pool of local collectors, a national gallery, competitions and awards, government funding for the arts, more galleries, a good art school, an East African Biennale – all of these will help build the art scene and encourage young artists to develop a research based practice and not to have to rely on pleasing a more commercial audience or the tourist industry. Artists need opportunities to travel, across Africa and further afield to gain experience.