Kuona Reloaded: Artists attempt to salvage the 21-year success story

Kuona Trust is a big name in the art game in Kenya; the organization is a platform where many of the modern day renowned Kenyan artists started off before they blossomed into what they are today, the likes of Wambui Kamiru, who currently owns her own successful art Gallery- ArtSpace Kenya, among other well established and successful artists from Eastern Africa. On the flip side, Kuona which means ‘to see’ is literally staring at the bottom of the abyss.

The organization, which has been in operation for 21 years, cannot be left to drain, at least that is per the view of a number of artists who have taken it upon themselves to redeem the entity that was once a reputable organization but has been left in shambles due to corruption.

The group of artists chose November 5 as the day they would begin salvaging Kuona Trust, the artists, ‘alumni’ and Friends converged at the Kuona establishment for an event dubbed Kuona Reloaded, an event which brought together big names from the Kenyan art industry, who came to enjoy the warmth of the ‘mother’ of art and witness the organization’s progress.

Kuona Trust has been hit by controversy following claims of corruption that has brought the organization to its knees, at the center of it all are the directors who have been accused of embezzling funds allocated for various projects. This turn of events has left the organization with a 30-member staff in confusion; and as investigations into alleged graft and mismanagement continue, Kuona employees who are technically out of work have gone months without salaries and various projects have since stalled.

According to The East African, Kuona Trust, which was commissioned by the government of Kenya to develop a life-size statue of the late Nobel Laureate and renowned environmentalist Wangari Maathai has yet to do so due to lack of enough funds for the project, even after payment was made to that effect, in full, by the government. The publication details events and correspondence between government officials and the trust directors which imply that the monies were misappropriated as many questions remain unanswered.

Kuona Trust employed the hands of sculptor Kevin Oduor to create the Maathai sculpture which was to be unveiled at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, The East African quotes Oduor as saying he received little money and since he has not been able to finish the project. Oduor is among the artists who have been left in confusion, to inflict more pain on the wound, major donors are withholding their funding; an example of Forum Syd which is currently conducting an audit of its own, into the monies from the Swedish NGO which allegedly cannot be accounted for.

Kenyan artists are more like a vulnerable group with little resources and having to deal with very unpredictable and infrequent markets. The delicate marketing and the rigorous task that goes into putting up an exhibition may be a toll on the artists’. This is where organizations like Kuona Trust come in-to help bridge the gap and help open markets for artists, some go as far as negotiating with clients on behalf of the artists.

With Kuona’s top management under investigation, and support staff jobless, the gap that is left is huge. It is this gap that the artists hope to fill and continue with their work. The big question is; how will they pay the bills? The gathering at Kuona Reloaded sought to seek solutions to this quagmire with the help of other stakeholders and individuals of good will.

It is the hope of many Kenyan artists that, Kuona Trust shall rise from the murk and continue being a home for artist with strong mentorship programs for upcoming artists. The stimulus for success for the organization lies in the hope that the vibrant creative industry and the increase in the number of art aficionados continues to grow.

If reclaimed and managed well Kuona can sustainably rise above other entities like the Tribal Gallery, One Off Contemporary Art Gallery and the Banana Hill Gallery or establishments like the Godown Art Center.

Some of the top artists associated Kuona Include: Denis Muraguri, John Silver, Maral Bolouri, Jackie Karuti, Aron Boruya, Longinus Nagila and Onyis Martin plus the sculptors Oduor, Anthony Wanjau, Gakunja Kagwa and Kepha Mosoti.

The one week Kuona Reloaded showcase ended November 12