The Circle Art agency has been launched in 2012. Since then it has held two major auctions in Nairobi. Moses Serubiri asks Danda Jaroljmek, one of Circle’s directors, about the changes within the regional art scene, about new buyers and international visibility of East African Art
Moses Serubiri: Why did you establish Circle Art auction?
Danda Jaroljmek: For a variety of reasons: there’s little infrastructure for the arts in Nairobi. The whole point was to build new and local markets for modern and contemporary art. The auction made perfect sense as a stage for visibility of East African artists, and for creating new ways to buy art. There’s also little documentation of the history of art in East Africa.
MS: There seems to be a lack of documentation of especially modern and contemporary art in East Africa.
DJ: It was incredibly hard to find information about some of the artists in the auction. I think that a lot of artists’ work has just been forgotten. So, for us, the auction is about giving those artists visibility and to evoke a sense of history. We publish their biographies in our catalogues, something that not many auction houses do. To us, the auction is not simply an auction; it is an education for our viewers.
During the first auction last year, we had great advice from Bonhams and other auction houses. This year, we are already thinking a lot more carefully about the artists we select. It is really important to make a balance between modern and contemporary artists, and across the region.
MS: Does this process involve curating?
DJ: I am not a curator. My formal training is in Public Art. But with everything that we do at Circle, we try to inform people and to give them a choice. The most interesting part about it is that our audience and clients want to know more about the art scene, and its history. They want to know about artists that are collectable. I think we underestimate our local audience. It’s very important for them to have the context of the art scene and to understand it in a way unlike before. And this is where our success lies. People are learning and they’re building art collections. We’re encouraging people to become serious art buyers. And if we’re telling people that Kenyan and East African art is an investment, then there needs to be a secondary market. This time different collectors have approached us from Thailand, from America, saying they have East African art and want to sell it.
MS: Who are some of the collectors of East African art?
DJ: We’re finding that it’s quite varied. There are international buyers; people like Robert Devereux of course, who is a known collector. But we also have a lot of new people buying art for the first time, and who enjoy the process of the auction.
MS: What was collecting East African art like a few decades ago?
DJ: In the past, people have bought art for themselves. There haven’t been a lot of people collecting art publicly. There are two or three businesses that have an annual budget to buy art. But this is still new. A large portion of our bidders were Kenyan business people. Companies like Shell East Africa and Unilever were supposed to have a collection, but if they still exist, nobody knows anything about it. There are no businesses that own art collections, like in South Africa.
MS: Does Circle plan on growing an art collection?
DJ: Not at the moment, no. But we have shareholders, and we have discussed that we should start collecting carefully. It’s very much something we’d like to do, though we’re still a small business. We’ve been developing local contacts and business infrastructure, and we’ve established events that have impacted the scene.
MS: What are the practical concerns with collecting modern and contemporary art?
DJ: There are some concerns about longevity. There are a number of restorers here in Nairobi which we’ve managed to discover. The concerns are the preservation of art in the long term. We’re also dealing with presentation. There hasn’t been a great history in Kenya of carefully presenting artwork, so we’re creating professionalism in that area. Obviously we all have artists whose work we’re following, but there’s no quantifiable evidence for investing in a particular one. Other concerns are simple things like finding insurance companies to insure art. We now have an insurance company that will just do that, something you weren’t able to do before. That is the business of preserving.
MS: The cover photograph on the 2014 auction catalogue of the Francis Naggenda sculpture is a powerful image.
DJ: It is not accepting anything but the best. We haven’t had a decent budget, but from the beginning I was determined that everything that Circle does should be in best shape. I was disappointed with this year’s catalogue in terms of printing. We made a determined effort to ensure the spaces, invitations, catalogues and photographs and everything else we do, to be comparable with standards in the international art world.
MS: How do you balance between contemporary and modern art?
DJ: It depends on the events. With the auction, the acquisition was collecting the very best from artists, whether something was made in 1969 or this year. In the auction, unlike in the exhibition, it is the art pieces themselves that count, not only the experience of the viewer. The work has to fulfill a certain standard. It has to have longevity. When it comes to exhibitions we work with artists whose work is created for a finite amount of time. The auction has to create a sense of history and to offer work that isn’t readily available in artist’s studios. It is with that confident questioning, that we pick our pieces: is this the right work? Should this work be in the auction?
MS: Is there a big difference between modern art and contemporary art?
DJ: No. I would say that the difference is between the countries. Some of the modern artists in Uganda who come from Makerere, such as Eli Kyeyune, show certain training from the art school. In Kenya, artists Jak Katarikawe and Sane Wadu reflect different approaches. And so do Ethiopian, Sudanese, and Tanzanian artists. I think the comparisons between generations unnecessary. It is more difficult to make comparisons between modern and contemporary artists, than it is to compare modern and contemporary artists across the region.
MS: In his catalogue essay for Check List Luanda Pop, at the African Pavilion in Venice, Simon Njami refers to the “shock of being seen.” How do you feel about these works being seen for the first time?
DJ: It’s exciting. I have been in this part of the world since the 90s, so having looked at key artists from the 70s and placing them with contemporary art is thrilling. We all know that art in East Africa is little known. And in a small way, I hope that art in the region will get more visibility through Circle. Last year there was a lot of coverage at the auction: we’re spreading the word in small ways. We’ve sent a lot of catalogues this year, to various art collectors around the country. So, like at 1:54 Art Fair, there is a lot of interest now in African art, and there are many people working to create visibility.
I think it’s really a matter of creating a platform for the art audience. Ours in total is over three hundred people at opening nights in all of our exhibitions. That’s a lot more people looking at art than there have been in the past. I think we’ve tried to create different platforms for more viewers. There’s been a dramatic increase in people seeing or viewing modern and contemporary art in Kenya.
MS: What plans does Circle have for the future?
DJ: We’re aiming to have a gallery from early next year. It will be a modest gallery, but one nonetheless. There’s huge need for exhibition space in Nairobi. One of the things that we’ve not explored as much as we’d like to is to have a regular space where artists and collectors come together. Also, it is time to explore more international platforms with Circle.
MS: Will this involve working with curators or writers?
DJ: It would be amazing to produce a really good book on art in the region. That’s a huge project! It would definitely have to be a collaboration between lots of different organizations. It would be also good, once we’ve established a gallery, to invite curators to put on shows. We’re a small organization and we’re open to working with people. A lot of artists have already asked to put on solo shows.
Serubiri Moses is a writer, photographer, and curator. His research interests include urbanity, language, politics, and aesthetics. His essays focus on metaphors for postcolonial Ugandan politics and urban experience.