What comes to mind when you think of investment? It is probably property, land or shares. However, little by little the East African region has begun to accommodate a different kind of asset, art. For the longest time, appreciation and by extension purchase of art has been a preserve of foreign diplomats and tourists. This tide is slowly changing with more locals appreciating and buying art.
Some of Kenya’s artists are now able to sell their works for hundreds of thousands of shillings, prices that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
Paul Onditi, an artist who traveled to Europe to look for greener pastures, later returned having failed. When he came back he was pleasantly surprised to find a growing appreciation for art back home. “Am I in Kenya?” Why was the country I left 10 years ago on such a high, buying art? It all took me by surprise,” he says.
At the time, six of his paintings, displayed in Kuona Trust, were all purchased by an Indian visitor, and not long after, Onditi almost sold out his entire collection at an art exhibition showing in Alliance Française.
The growing art sector has been especially elevated by Circle Art Agency’s annual modern and contemporary East African art auction. Considered to be the only one in East Africa, the Circle auction has given drive to the art scene in Kenya, getting East African artwork recognized internationally and locally. In 2015 alone, the auction brought in sales amounting to more than Kshs. 20 million, an example of the lucrative investment possibilities capable of resulting from art in the region. Their very first auction showcased various works with about two selling for more than Ks1m ($10,000). In 2015, four art works beat that price; the most expensive piece, by Ugandan painter Geoffrey Mukasa, was worth Ksh1.7m.
Art works are beginning to attract numerous high-class individuals and companies, not simply looking for nice paintings, but beautiful and rare art pieces with a view to invest. This stretches a little beyond the Circle Art Auction, with various other institutions looking to create investments in this growing market.
Safaricom, one of East Africa’s largest corporate players, has its own modern art exhibition that inhabits the ground floor of Safaricom House – the “Safaricom Centre” – in Westlands. The idea is that Safaricom does business with a lot of people, not to mention the hundreds of employees who work in the building. They all get exposed to the art every day, with some of them possibly looking to purchase one or two.
One art enthusiast Isaac Awuondo, the managing director of Commercial Bank of Africa as well as a board member at Kuona Trust has Jimnah Kimani’s wild colours in the CBA lobby, Richard Kimathi abstracts in the board room, and more art at home than walls to put them on. Awuondo is actually building a second home just to house his art collection, which has cost him about Ksh 5m and is likely worth many times that.
Realization of this investment potential has seen numerous endorsements of the art market through facilitating exhibitions in various galleries across the country. These galleries include Shifteye Gallery, Nairobi Gallery, Banana Hill Art Gallery and several others.
Encouragement to create art continues to grow, with the increasing middle-class population, providing more clientele to various artists looking to expose their creative works.