For the past fifteen years, Kuona Trust has worked with over 1,500 artists raising the level and quality of the local art scene and changing the conditions for the local practice and reception of contemporary visual arts. Grounded by the mission “to advance the skills and opportunities of artists and make art a valued and integral part of society”, Kuona Trust is currently one of the oldest organisations dedicated exclusively to the development of the visual arts in East Africa.
As artistic director Danda Jaroljmek explains, Kuona Trust was founded in 1995 by Rob Burnet with advice from Robert Loder, Chairman of the Triangle Arts Trust, as a direct response to the scarce opportunities for art education in Kenya. Nowadays, Kuona is not only a highly successful art centre where local as well as international artists show their work, but has become an important reference within the local artistic community. By providing subsidized studio spaces, workshops, trainings and a resource centre, Kuona has offered artists an opportunity to collaborate thus enhancing the growth of the art community as well as that of the individual artist. As they believe that “a vibrant artistic community is a vital tool for social change”, Kuona ensures that art is nurtured at an early age by providing education through its outreach and educational programmes. Furthermore, Kuona has become a spring board for emerging local artists providing them with their first opportunities to participate in international workshops and residencies.
In their own words: “Kuona’s major contibution to the local art scene has been providing both an art space as well as providing technical and capacity building opportunities for artists. Kuona has organized a variety of projects that include art in public spaces around Nairobi and on selected business premises; we have facilitated international exchange of artists from around the world with local artists, enabling the artists experience different levels of exposure with regard to the international art world.”
One of the major accomplishments of this organization, as they themselves explain, has been the development of the contemporary artistic community over the last 15 years which has led to the existence of a well established group of contemporary artists dedicated full time to their practice in Nairobi. As an example of this, Ory Olindo has commented: “…about four years ago artist Cyrus Ng’ang’a walked into Kuona Trust as a young artist with a painting that needed work, today his creativity and the confidence and maturity of his work are something to marvel about.”
Other major accomplishments worth noting are the international workshops organised by Kuona Trust. Most notably the two ‘Art in the Forest Workshops’ held in March 2006 and September 2007. As the director explains: “the aim of these workshops was to get the artists to stretch their limits, moving out of their studios and daring to work in the fertile, creative space of the forest. All works created in the forest were creatively made from natural, biodegradable materials such as twigs, leaves, fallen branches, stones, soil, pieces of gathered string and other found objects, and were thereafter left in the forest to disintegrate naturally over time.” As Danda recalls, these events were very successful drawing crowds of over 1,000 visitors each time to the Ngong Forest Sanctuary in Nairobi. “Watching the stream of excited visitors and families attending the ‘Art in the Forest’ opening day, talking to the artists, wandering around the forest and making impromptu art pieces in response to the artists work is a wonderful memory that Kuona Trust holds very dear”, Danda concludes.
Notwithstanding, the future hasn’t always looked as bright. Over the course of the years Kuona has had to deal with a great series of obstacles. For instance, Kuona had to move premises twice during their existence which meant some temporary instability and the need to rethink their programme and core activities. But one of their most pressing limitations, as is for most artist-led organizations, has been the difficulty of gaining government and corporate support for the visual arts in Kenya. Because of the lack of funds they have had to make some very difficult decisions at several stages including cutting the international exchange programme.
So where is Kuona Trust headed? What can be expected in the (near) future? Besides counting with a group of internationally acclaimed Kenyan artists, at the moment, Kuona is in the process of looking for support to buy land to build a purpose-built, long term sustainable art space with studios, art gallery, workshop space, and a resource centre set in a garden for their outreach projects that can attract a large amount of local audience for the enjoyment of the arts.