Inspired by the exhibition Various Small Fires, Tanzanian born writer and artist Valerie Amani reflects on what it means to be an “emerging artist”. This recent exhibition (August 11 – September 10th 2021), organized by Circle Art Gallery based in Nairobi, featured the work of young early-career artists from Kenya, Tanzania and Eritrea. The gallery’s intent is to highlight new voices, giving the audience a chance to discover new artists while offering a glimpse into the ever-growing creative scene in the region.
While scrolling down the guidelines of an open call for new collaborative projects, I noticed that there was an incredibly thorough definition of what it meant to be an emerging artist. As an identified “emerging artist” myself, it made me reflect on the significance of this interval of an artist’s career -- a blanket term which supposedly covers the period where most makers from differing backgrounds, educations (or anti-educations) and practices, converge with the implied intention of one day moving past the emerging phase. As opposed to artists who have gallery representation and extensive exposure, emergents are largely dependent on their own hunger, curiosity and commitment to create a sustainable practice.
The emerging artist is in many ways romantically seen as the one with the most possibility; however, possibility comes with risk and the weight of having to navigate an industry saturated with its obsession of visibility and materiality.
Exhibitions, media coverage, online presence -- if one is to emerge, one has to find ways to facilitate this emergence, which can prove to be the singular greatest challenge of growing a creative career. Because of this, it is necessary for the longevity of the art market to have platforms that support upcoming practitioners through residencies, mentorships and, of course, the ‘Mecca’ of an exhibition.
Various Small Fires was an exhibition at Circle Art Gallery still available for online view here where the works of 18 emerging East African artists are featured. Showcasing an array of paintings, textile works, sculptures, prints and photographs, the exhibition, in my opinion, is a small rebellion, celebrating artists practicing within a region that has a young developing art market, with a limited (but budding) appreciation for the arts. The gallery stands as an anomaly, being one of the most influential contemporary galleries in the region, and the first to have international presence at esteemed art fairs and auctions.
From the artists that I became familiar with during my time at Nafasi Art Space in Tanzania, such as Liberata Alibalio’s textile landscapes, Mihayo Kallaye's curious figurative paintings and Winifred Luena’s ethereal photographs, the display is a wonderful window into the practice of artists, with many I had not come across before.
Eritrean artist Nebay Abraha’s pensive paintings of scenes suspended in timelessness hold a tender, melancholy realness, while Wanjohi Maina’s clever depictions of Kenyan road hawkers bring a nostalgic familiarity to an often overlooked aspect of the region’s economic culture.
Another artist whose work I previously had the joy of encountering, was Taabu Munyoki, showcasing two canvas pieces.
On asking Munyoki for some insight on the multimedia paintings, she expressed that they were both part of a body of work exploring the relationship between (black) women and their hair -- touching on the uses of hair and beauty salons beyond their practicality, transforming them into spaces of safety and communion.
Munyoki further commented on her experience of being part of the showcase as a whole:
“I enjoyed the experience of having my work displayed alongside really talented artists and it was refreshing to see young, emerging artists, such as myself, getting a space to amplify our voices. These spaces are integral because I believe there is so much talent and expression beaming from younger artists from East Africa.
On a personal note, the show was especially important as it took me outside the work and in a way, forced me to articulate what I wanted to communicate through my perspective."
The artists mentioned are only a few out of the considerable collection of talents the exhibition has to offer, collated by Kenyan Curator Don Handa. The exhibition not only served the purpose of highlighting the bustling undercurrent of early-career artists, but also is a noteworthy reference point to how an established art organisation can actively promote young artists. Because of their inclusion in this exhibition, many of these artists now have professional bios and, through Circle Art, a presence on the global platform Artsy.net.
Meditating on the needs of emerging artists, I appreciate Emergent Art Space’s accessible platform and commitment to young, international emerging artists — providing opportunities for communication, connection, exposure and exhibition that inspire art practice along with professional development. Emergence has the connotations of forward motion and
growth; from the spark that birthed the flame within the emerging artist, there is an anticipation for the small fire to one day become a full and radiant blaze.
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