Visiting One Off Gallery in Nairobi is like coming home for me. As you enter the sprawling 5 acre complex, which serves as contemporary art gallery, stables, and residence for gallery owner Carol Lees - any tension of city life melts away as you are greeted warmly by an entourage of Carol's pets (geese, ducks, and a pack of lovely dogs). One Off is more than just a gallery - it's a dominant force in the art culture in Nairobi, serving as a de facto home base for many of the established artists in Kenya and East Africa. At Carol's shows, many artists show up to support the space and her work.
Managed by Carol Lees and Kui Ogonga (married to the super talented Thom Ogonga), One Off is the East African representing gallery for 12 of the best East African artists around, including Beatrice Wanjiku, Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi, Ehoodi Kichapi, Anthony Okello, Timothy Brooks, and others. Beyond that, One Off shows works from a variety of exceptional artists in every medium - including some of the best sculptures in the region.
I sat down with both Carol and Kui last week to learn a bit more about the genesis of One Off, what it feels is driving the local art market, and some of their favorite artists and shows!
What first drew you both into the art scene in Kenya? What were your first impressions?
Carl: My first ‘serious’ job was working as an assistant commercial designer to Henry West and Andrew McNaughton. I was always sent out to commission the artwork for our major interiors in hotels and banks. I met all the artists and fell in love with their output. The art market was minuscule at that time. My friends laughed as I opened my first gallery!
What have you noticed has changed from when you started One Off until now?
I started One Off in 1994 but owned another gallery two years before that. At that time, there was only one major game in town; Gallery Watatu. The owner was Ruth Shaffner who effectively sold ‘first generation’ artists to a 100% expatriate audience. Her brand was focused on a naïve version of art which she perceived to be the expectation of Westerners aspiring to collect art from Africa.
With the arrival on the scene of second generation artists, things started to change. They benefited from globalization; attending numerous residencies and hosting international artists at home. There was a fabulous cross pollination of ideas and inspiration. Contemporary East African Art really took off and with it, an interest from home grown Kenyan collectors.
What made you want to open a gallery?
Meeting artists and seeing the extraordinary art work being produced; knowing that that there was almost no where for them to expose it.
How have you refined your understanding of the art in East Africa? What is the process here in Kenya for expanding your business and connections with artists?
It is a constant work in progress; always new artists to learn about and new opportunities to develop. Obviously, partnerships with international galleries are crucial as is developing strong representation on the web. We work on this constantly and not always to the knowledge of the artists – I would say that this is ‘the back end’ of the gallery business.
How have you curated the gallery? Do you have any parameters you use to select what to exhibit and what not to? How do you choose these artists who exhibit in your gallery?
Sadly, my curatorial choices are more instinctive than they might be if I worked for a public institution. I feel partially exonerated by a famous curator who always said ‘Curators are born and never taught’ – it might have been Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate?
When did you buy your first piece of artwork and what was it? What inspired you to buy it? Do you still own it?
I bought my first two paintings from Gallery Watatu with a small sum my Mother left me in her will. I was 22. The works were by Yony Waite and Robin Anderson, two highly established artists who started Gallery Watatu. I still own one of the pieces.
Could you explain how you started collecting art? What turned you into “collectors” if you would classify yourselves as such?
If you run a gallery and you are passionate about your artist’s output, you are surrounded by temptation…
Who are some of your favorite artists in Kenya? East Africa?
Too many to list and my favourite piece is always the latest piece in the gallery!
Which have been some of the most inspirational shows you have seen over the past 10 years in East Africa?
Richard Kimathi at RaMoMA and Peterson Kamwathi at Goethe Institute
What development do you think have the most impact on the art scene in Kenya and East Africa?
One of the biggest influences for change in the art markets in East Africa was the Ford Foundation; for a while they invested very large sums of money in the arts which they perceived to be an indicator of a functioning democracy. They funded many international residencies and allowed artists from this region to travel and to see what artists were doing the world over. Suddenly, the self-taught had an extraordinary art education by attending residencies at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world.
Much more recently, Art fairs have brought our art closer to international collectors thus driving up the prices and recognition for artists from Eastern Africa.
What’s the next show you are putting on at One Off?
Unusually for us, we will be importing an artist from London. Her influences are African and her technique is fresh; Lizzie Thurman, ‘A conversation – not quite as it appears’.
Be sure to visit One Off Gallery if you are in Kenya, and you can check out their website here.