ARTS IN KENYA
The art items in Kenya include sisal baskets, elephant hair bracelets, Maasai bead jewelry, musical instruments, silver and gold jewelry, soapstone sculptures, wooden carvings, tribal masks, Maasai figurines, paintings, prints and sculptures. These art items are available in the arts and craft markets and shops throughout the main tourist centers of Kenya.
Cloth and Fabric in Kenya also form interesting art items. The cloth and fabric available in Kenya are batik cloth, kangas (women's wraparound skirts) with beautiful patterns and even Kenyan proverbs printed on them and kikois (type of sarong for men) that come in many different colors and textiles. These are good art items to take home from your Kenyan trip.
African jewelry has been quite popular for centuries in the world market. Kenya offers rare pieces of African jewelry containing cowry shells. Kenya is also known for its soapstone carvings found in Western Kenya. It is the Gusii and Abigusii ethnic groups which hand carve these Kisii stones into exquisite pieces of Kenyan art.
Benga is a truly Kenyan music style. Benga is high-energy dance music that originated after the 1940s when Luo musicians started playing traditional tunes with modern electrical instruments.
Most other popular music styles have received influences from abroad. Taarab is the traditional Swahili music played at the Kenyan coast, and is heavily influenced by Arabic and Indian music styles. Lingala – modern upbeat party music - came from Congo, where the deteriorating political situation made many artists flee to East Africa. American hip hop and gangsta rap has infiltrated Kenya like a virus. Pictures of 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg are everywhere in Nairobi.
The hypnotic swaying and leaping in Masai and Samburu dancing, are the best known forms of Kenyan dancing. In their energetic dancing, warriors display their strength by leaping high in the air.
The Masai and other tribes perform regularly for tourists who visit their villages. In tourist venues along the coast, Mijikenda dance groups often give performances.
Sigana is a traditional performance art which contains elements of all the major Kenya art forms: storytelling, song, music, dance, rituals etc. Active participation is a key feature of sigana. The line between performers and audience is less clear than in many other Kenya art forms.
You won't see these often along the tourist trails, but the Mzizi Arts Centre in Nairobi organizes monthly Sigana performances.
Theatre and performance
There are several theatre groups in Kenya, most of them based in Nairobi. Names to remember are the Mbalamwezi Theatre Group and the Phoenix and Miujiza Players. They often perform at the foreign cultural centres in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.
In Nairobi, there's the Kenya National Theatre. It's known for the controversy it created with the production "I Will Marry When I Want" by Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Ngugi wa Mirii, which brought them into confrontation with the government.
Kenyans reportedly also like of satire and stand up comedy. One popular group is Redykuylass (‘Rediculous') which featured in a weekly TV program with a mix of political and social satire.
In Kenya, oral narratives are the oldest form of literature. Oral stories are still important in many communities. Written literature, in Swahili and English, emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century. However, only after Kenya's independence (1963) a body of national literature came into being.
An important author (novelist, playwright and essayist) is Ngugi wa Thiong'o. As a child on missionary school, he was a devout Christian, but later he rejected Christianity and became a fierce critic of colonialism. He changed his name from James Ngugi to Ngugi wa Thiong'o in 1976 and embraced his native Kikuyu culture, as well as Marxism.
While having written the first novel in English by an East African author - "Weep not, child" (1964) – he published his first book in Kikuyu in 1980: "Caitaani Muthara-Ini" (Devil on the Cross). He now argued that literature written by Africans in a colonial language is not really African literature. In 1992 Ngugi became professor of literature at New York University.
There is a small film industry in Kenya, which is struggling to stay alive, like elsewhere in Africa. However, a new generation of Kenyan film makers is emerging, inspired by the success of the Nigerian video industry. One such film director is Kibaara Kaugi, who in 2004 produced the acclaimed "Enough is enough" - a narrative of the famous Mau Mau uprising – on a minimal budget.
Also, foreign film makers have used Kenya as a backdrop for their works. The most famous example is of course Sydney Pollack's "Out of Africa" (1985) with Merryl Streep and Robert Redford, which is about the life of Danish author Karen Blixen, who emigrated in the 1910s to Kenya to become a coffee farmer. A recent international movie is "The White Masai" (2005), after the real story of the Swiss woman Corinne Hofmann who married a Samburu warrior and joined tribal life. There is no happy ending here. These and other movies are reviewed on my movies about Kenya page.
Some Nairobi cinema houses are 20th Century Cinema (Mama Ngina Street), Fox Drive-In Cinema (Thika Road) and Nairobi Cinema (Uchumi House, Aga Khan Walk).
In Kenya you will find much beautiful and fine craft work. It's sometimes amazing to see people in rags sitting outside their ‘home' (if you could call it that), and produce wooden carved tables and chairs of a beauty you won't see anywhere in North America or Europe.
Maasai Wedding Necklace
Most crafts are produced for tourists. It's best to set aside any purist misgivings you might have over their authenticity, and just enjoy them for their own beauty (which they often have). Compare this to American or European culture, which is also eternally developing. The Beatles are just as ‘truly European' as Beethoven is!
Wood carvings of people and animals can be bought everywhere. Classic are the very long sculptures of women carrying baskets on their heads.
Soap stone objects are another popular for of Kenya art. Soap stone is mined in western Kenya by the Gusii and Abigusii tribes. They then produce beautiful sculptures, chess sets etc. from it. Each piece is carved individually by the craftsmen and then wet sanded, polished and dyed all by hand. Soap stone products can be bought everywhere in Kenya.
Jewelry (often in the form of beads) are another Kenyan speciality and they can be bought in all colours of the rainbow. Jewelry is important in African culture. Much Kenyan jewelry contains cowry shells. They are not only beautiful but also symbolic.
Masai spears and shields are also popular souvenirs. But first check with your air company and your customs whether you can take them home. Another solution is having them sent home by mail. Some tourist shops offer this option.
14 inch brown-black stripped wooden zebra face mask. Beautifully designed to reveal facial features. Perfect for gifts, decorations or as collectors item.
18 by 24 inch on wallpaper. Beautiful mixed medium art displays a man requesting permission to assist a woman.
2 ebony 9 inch candle holders. Beautiful spiral-snake design with firm base. Intricate art work with an excellent finish. Perfect for gifts, decorations or as collectors item. (1 pair)
Red/black-colored 4 inch round box with lid. Carved from soapstone. The etching reveals a traditional African dancer. The lid has a pick-up that gives an elephant impression. Perfect for storing jewelry.
5 inch beautiful multi-colored soapstone bowl with careful etchings that outline the silhouette tree and the endangered black African rhino. The colors are a mix of pink-purple-black. Perfect match with related colored vase and goblet. The handle is carved into a swan's head. The accuracy involved in the making of this product can be displayed by the perfection in the swan's bill and eyes. Perfect for gifts and decorations.
Meticulously carved 8 inch Ujama (pronounced uh-ja-maa) family village figurine. Carved from Ebony wood. Beautiful and careful design reveals members of a family all connected together, symbolic of relationships. Ujama comes from the base word jama meaning "family relation". Ujama was a sort of division of labor and proceeds went towards the extended family and people living in the village. Perfect for gifts, decorations or as collectors item. Very symbolic piece of art.
Marble look alike 2 inch candleholder. Made from Asian* soapstone. The holder has a firm extended base for drip collection and mesh like design. (4 pieces)
Marble look alike 6 inch Asian* soapstone elephant carving. The elephant sculpture is carefully carved to reveal details like ivory tusks, trunk and ears.