Ahead of The Circle Art Agency’s major auction of East African Art, Wanja Kimani, artist and writer, caught up Danda Jaroljmek, one of the agency’s directors and former director of the Kuona Kuona Trust Centre for Visual Arts to talk about the Art scene in east africa, and impetus for launching the auction, engaging audiences with art in Kenya and her wishlist of artists to collect. 

WK: What motivated you and your partners to establish Circle Art Agency?

DJ: The need to focus on the local market for art and provide a professional service to guide client both individual and corporate,. We expect the public to attend exhibitions and buy art but they lack experience and exposure, we can guide them and give them confidence to begin collecting art, understand their taste and enjoy the experience.

WK: Art auctions are gaining momentum in Africa, particularly in West Africa. This is the first art auction in East Africa. How will it function and differ from those taking place in other parts of the continent?

DJ: It will function in the same way as any professional commercial art auction worldwide, but will be only for artists from East Africa, this one has art from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan, we hope to feature Rwanda and Burundi in the future.

WK: As focus and commercial value of contemporary African art increases, what challenges, if any, can you identify for the artists? What role, if any, can Circle play?

DJ: Lots – artists must be aware of what is happening in the international art world especially which African artists are doing well.  They must do lots of research and try to learn as much as they can, continue to experiment but try to remain true to themselves.  Not be swept up by what the international curators want or ask of them.  They need to learn to manage their careers and seek help from successful older artists.  They need to focus on their art and developing their practice and not just on commercial gain.  Circle knows many of the artists in the region and can help guide, listen, talk and bring artists together with people who can help.

WK: Your professional experience as the Africa Coordinator at Triangle Network and as Director of artist-run studios and gallery at Kuona Trust in Nairobi has granted you first-hand insight into the way art is negotiated, marketed and consumed in the region. What are the significant changes that you have witnessed? What are the notable successes?

DJ: Actually my 8 years at Kuona and 10 years with Triangle taught me about artistic practice, the needs of emerging artists across Africa, the lack of facilities, education and exposure rather than about ART and how it is marketed and consumed.  The whole area of art as a commodity, marketing, supporting clients and collectors is a totally different world and a huge learning curve.  I think we have a more informed public but we need good galleries, museums.  Lots of individual successes for artists.

WK: Through Circle Art Agency, you have engaged the Kenyan public in alternative forms of engaging with art, including pop-up shows that are momentary and spontaneous. What does this show about the role of art and the way it is consumed in contemporary society?

DJ: The white cube space is not well known here, people are not informed about galleries and are not used to attending exhibitions, we need to show art in different ways and provide platforms for the public to understand what the artist is trying to communicate, bring artist and public together in a comfortable safe environment where they can get to know each other.  Our collectors club has been very successful with over 60 members who attend different events monthly to help them learn about art and enjoy it.

WK: Art has the ability to increase awareness, debate and discussion. As African art increases its presence in public and private collections worldwide, what conversations do you think we should all be having but aren’t?

DJ: My concern is that there are too few people determining what art is seen from the African continent, lots of power in a few hands, artists need to take control of their own destinies and come together to curate their own group shows and put themselves out there.  Art is not regional,  people should not be able to dictate the sort of art they consider appropriate to be seen or collected according to where it comes from.  Artists should be prepared to take risks and not sit back and complain that no one notices them, we have to force people to see what is being made in the region.

WK: If money were no object, which piece of art would you like to add to your own collection?

DJ: Hmm, from the auction it is hard a I have hand picked most of them, the Justus Kyalo diptych ‘Chaos’ or the giant Geoffrey Mukasa ‘Celebrations’ or the Anthony Okello ‘Masquerade’

WK: If you were to have a second edition of this auction in 10 years, which emerging artists do you think would be featured?

DJ: I can only speak for Kenya – and they are not all emerging some are quite established but certainly Gor Soudan, Alex Mbevo, Dennis Muraguri, Beatrice Wanjiku.

Circle Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction takes place on the 5th November 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya