Kenya Arts & Culture
In Kenyan art, as in all African art, themes are based on the representation of daily life and African culture; and reveal the importance behind some of its most beautiful art. The common themes are: a couple, a woman and a child, a male with a weapon or animal, an outsider or "stranger"; but most African traditional societies placed great significance on decoration of both functional and ritual objects, and the body as well. In some tribes this was raised to the form of high art.
The Maasai use decorative beading and jewellery to emphasize social status.
The Samburu place great significance on physical beauty and adornment, especially among warriors, who take great care of their physical appearance, using hair styling and ochre body painting.
The Turkana people take great care and attention to decoration of the body and objects such as ostrich egg waterholders, wrist knives and clubs.
Other Northern nomadic tribes such as the Boran, Oromo and Gabbra extensively decorate functional items, including water gourds, stools and neck pillows.
The Kamba people are considered the best carvers, and have long been known as skilled woodworkers. Carving on the coast was centred on the island of Lamu, where the local Bajun tribe is believed to have influenced Arab craftsmen to create a unique hybrid of styles. [ See also our Photo-Gallery ]
Soapstone carvings also known as Kisii stone, are a beautiful way to adorn your home with a smooth, eclectic look. Made of soapstone found in western Kenya, the Gusii and Abigusii ethnic groups individually hand carve each of these one of a kind pieces. They first mine the soapstone from the hills around the village of Tabaka and then, using knives or handmade tools, the craftsman individually carve each piece. After the carving the figure is wet sanded and then polished, all by hand. To form the colours they dye the stone and then incise it with the patterns the individual artist desires.
Ancestry is very important to the African people to show honour to their ancestors. Masks are designed and decorated with elaborate hair and jewellery to show great wealth and honour to their ancestors. Masks are greatly revered in African culture Many masks are used in ceremonies generally depicting deities, spirits of ancestors, mythological beings, good and or evil spirits, the dead, animal spirits, and other beings believed to have power over humanity. [ See also our Photo-Gallery ]
Much of African culture places great emphasis on appearance and therefore on jewellery. African jewellery has been given tremendous attention for centuries. Each piece of African jewellery is an imaginary journey through the rituals and culture of an African tribe. These unique items captures the mystery and fashion of Africa. African ethnic jewellery designs such as earrings, necklaces and pendants are often hand made and have the latest animal print designs. Alan Donovan of the African Heritage fame still produces five lines of jewellery. Besides the original African Heritage Jewellery created from elements from across the African continent, and the Jungle Safari and Nala lines, there is ‘Endangered Art’, a workshop using mostly silver and gold elements with semi precious and precious stones and ‘Malaika’ created mostly from brass sheets and local material, a workshop started for poor people in one of the large slums of Nairobi. For more on African Heritage Jewellery visit www.africanheritage.net
Graphical art in Kenya is derived from rock art patterns, but also heavily influenced from the Swahili and Arab culture. Kenyan painting has gradually developed incorporating traditional designs with modern technique. At the National Museum an independent trust, called the Kuona Trust, has been established to foster and encourage Kenyan artists. Kenya with its many art galleries has an invaluable artistic wealth.
Today, most art and craft production is for the lucrative tourist market. Items produced for the tourist market include sisal baskets, Maasai bead jewellery, musical instruments, and silver and gold jewellery, soapstone sculptures, wooden carvings, tribal masks and Maasai figurines. paintings, prints and sculptures, batik cloth, and kangas—women’s wraparound skirts with beautiful patterns, and often Kenyan proverbs printed on them and kikois - type of sarong for men that comes in many different colours and textiles. There are arts and craft markets and shops throughout the main tourist centres - each with a great diversity of items offered and quality available. [ See also our Photo-Gallery ]
The first published writing by Kenyan authors was born out of the experience of colonialism and the struggle for independence. One of Kenya's best known authors is Ngugi wa Thiongo an idealistic and skilled author whose work, published in both English and Kikuyu, is rich in themes of social, political and personal liberation. Probably his most accessible work for Western audiences is Weep Not Child a moving account of young Kikuyu men whose lives are changed by the struggle for independence. This novel provides an interesting alternative perspective to the mass of Kenyan colonial literature.
The colonial experience in Kenya prompted a great deal of literary output, from the accounts of the early explorers onwards. JH Patterson's sensational tale of his battle with The Man-eaters of Tsavo became a major bestseller and prompted a new genre of safari and hunting literature. Among the annals of Kenyan big game hunting, one of the best known is Ernest Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa, an account of his days hunting throughout Tsavo and the Chyulu region.
One of the best loved accounts of Kenyan colonial life was written by acclaimed Danish author Karen Blixen. Out of Africa, written under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, is a lyrical tale of her life on a coffee plantation outside Nairobi. Full of rich descriptions of the country and its wildlife, the book also says a great deal about the emotional isolation and uncertainty of her life in Kenya.
Kenya's reputation as a haven for eccentrics and bohemians attracted many independent spirits to Kenya, and produced an interesting body of literature. Beryl Markham's West with the Night is an adventurous and evocative account of her flying, hunting and travelling through Kenya in the first half of the 20th Century. Joy Adamson's Born Free was one of the first real calls for conservation of Kenya's great bounty of wildlife, and sparked a great deal of international attention.
The autobiography of Italian born Kuki Gallmann, I dreamed of Africa, is a major bestseller. The book is a lyrical account of her life on a ranch in Laikipia, filled with vivid descriptions of natural beauty, the pain of emotional loss and the joy of freedom.
The American photographer Peter Beard has spent a great deal of time in Kenya, and produced several books about the country. The best of these is undoubtedly The End of the Game a beautiful and important book about wildlife conservation, which manages to be both a brilliant work of modern art and a serious ecological commentary.
Popular music in Kenya encompasses a wide range of styles of both local and international origin. Among Kenyans, language is one of the crucial factors in defining their music. Instruments used for traditional must include the African Sistrum Great which is used for rituals or a fun rhythm instrument, creates an excellent sound two are used at the same at a time.
One of the musical architects of Kenya's burgeoning recording industry of the 1960s, was Daudi Kabaka, Kabaka's music and lyrics captured the spirit of a newly independent Kenya and chronicled daily life and the changing social environment. His music would be instantly recognizable to most Kenyans and those in the larger Swahili speaking region within Eastern Africa. Sadly, very little of Kabaka's music is known outside of Africa today.
Another of Kenya's pop music legends was Fadhili William who recorded in 1963 the now world-famous song Malaika (Angel). Although Fadhili's claim of authorship of the song is disputed among several Kenyans and Tanzanians, there is no argument that it is one of the best known songs throughout Africa. Miriam Makeba had a lot to do with spreading Malaika beyond the bounds of East Africa. Her performances of the song brought it to the attention of such famous names as Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, pop groups such as Boney M, and scores of African artists including Angelique Kidjo and the Mahotella Queens. It's even covered by Djeli Moussa Diawara and Bob Brozman on their Ocean Blues CD.
While once young Kenyans were devoted fans of American rap and R and B artists, today Nairobi's airwaves and club scene are almost completely dominated by local artists. This musical revolution has been spearheaded by a unique Kenyan hip hop sound- combining infectious rhythms with a lyrical mix of sheng (a hybrid urban street language) and Swahili. This sound was driven to the top of the charts by artists such as Nameless (whose massive hit Ninaoki was easily the most played song in Nairobi last year), Mr Googs and Vinnie Banton (whose Wasee (Githurai) became an anthem for urban Nairobians) Poxie Presha, K-shaka, Deux Vultures, Nyota Ndogo, K-rupt, Redsan and many more.