Freedom Flight Refuge exhibition at the Circle Art Gallery © Circle Art Gallery

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From the street, Brush Tu does not look like a centre of any sort of excellence, let alone the venue for a flourishing collective of young Kenyan artists. There is no sign outside the narrow, scruffy house in the Buru-Buru neighbourhood of east Nairobi, the faded paint on the walls is chipped and the small front yard is a mess.

But this hardly matters to the three young men who, in 2013, diverted from the usual path to artistic success in Kenya. Instead of seeking sponsorship or support from a donor organisation or an arts centre, they teamed up to share costs, increase their exposure and maintain their independence.

“There’s a quid pro quo to being supported. I hear these complaints from some artists about having to do this or that,” explains Boniface Maina, 29, one of the Brush Tu’s founders, referring to pressure over subject matter — the current trend being migration. “We didn’t want to have to deal with that. We wanted to do what we wanted, when we wanted.”

This is an unusual approach in a nation where government arts funding is all but non-existent. “The government lumps arts with sport and youth affairs,” says Wambui Kamiru, the founder and owner of the Art Space gallery in Nairobi, who has exhibited some of the Brush Tu artists. “Artists just don’t speak up in the way that sports do, so they get ignored.”

The difficulty of accessing funding may explain why Kenya’s art scene still lags behind its continental rivals South Africa and Nigeria in global exposure. It is hard to build a reputation without publicity, despite the success of a few names, such as Nairobi-based contemporary artist Michael Soi, who received a helping hand from actress Lupita Nyong’o when she posted a picture of herself on Facebook carrying one his hand-painted canvas tote bags.

Brush Tu started after Maina and a friend, Michael Musyoka, had been helping a third artist, David Thuku, to paint theatre backdrops and murals. “We just clicked and decided we wanted to do more together,” says Musyoka. “We thought we needed space to put our artworks, so why not get a residential house.”

Since then, the venture has grown. Two more artists joined the collective at the beginning of 2015, prompting a move to the current, larger, premises, and the five members now offer short-term residencies to other artists. Brush Tu collective’s paintings now sell for thousands of dollars apiece and are starting to be exhibited abroad, including in South Africa and Denmark.

One of the current artists in residence, sculptor Boniface Kimani, was the principal of the Buru-Buru Institute of Fine Arts, where several of the collective’s members studied. “I’ve been here several months,” says Kimani. “It’s a great place to practise my art. We’re able to inspire each other. The teacher-becoming-the-student is a sign of what they’ve achieved.”

Nairobi is home to other artists collectives — including the Mukuru Art Centre and the Dust Depo art studios. But neither of the latter two was started by young artists and few of their members have enjoyed the same success as those of Brush Tu.

Danda Jaroljmek, the director of Nairobi’s Circle Art agency and gallery, says the initiative is an example of a conspicuous progression of Kenya’s artists since the country gained independence from Britain in 1963.

“The first generation after independence was entirely dependent on the galleries for materials and stipends. The second generation, born in the 70s, travelled the world a lot,” she says, referring to artists like Kenyan-born Paul Onditi, who was helped by the Nairobi-based Kuona Trust and studied in Germany.

“Those artists inspired the younger generation to take everything a step further,” Jaroljmek says.

Both Maina and Musyoka say their work is becoming more political. “It drives me crazy that we have the political class mostly using the people as pawns in their games,” Maina says. “But with my work I don’t just point in one direction but try and look in both directions. For example, corruption is so bad because of all of us. People have to stand up and take responsibility.”

Freedom, Jackie Karuti © Jackie Karuti

Young artists in Kenya are becoming increasingly experimental, venturing beyond the world of paint on canvas. Most of the Brush Tu five want to expand into sculpture and installation art, partly because of Kimani’s influence, while other under-30s are going further.

Jaroljmek cites the example of an emerging talent who is a step ahead of the Brush Tu collective, the self-taught artist Jackie Karuti. Karuti, 29, who is about to start a residency at the Gasworks gallery in south London, is making animation and video art — an unusual choice of media in Kenya — tackling abstract concepts such as what she describes as “an imagined universe”.

“There are very few women Kenyan artists,” Jaroljmek says, adding that they tend to be experimental and daring.

Karuti is one of the few artists whose work Jaroljmek is taking to the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London this October, but she doesn’t consider this an unequivocal mark of success: “If you ask most artists what’s their definition of success, most would say number of exhibitions or works sold. In that case I’m a loser, she says. “For me it’s about progressing. I like learning through working with other people.”

To achieve that end, she says, she is considering starting her own Nairobi collective.

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