Intriguing and elegant forms created from modest materials neatly describes the objects shown in Arts of Kenya, which introduces traditional arts from an area often unrepresented in museum collections. Arts of Kenya showcases a collection of over 200 objects that was acquired by the Indiana University Art Museum in 2014. Assembled and documented in Kenya between 1973 and 1979 by Los Angeles collector and dealer Ernie Wolfe III, these objects are an extraordinary resource for the study and preservation of Kenyan traditional arts.
The word “traditional” suggests continuity and conservatism, and, indeed, the use of objects like the ones shown here was already long established when an influx of Europeans entered East Africa in the nineteenth century. But “tradition” also incorporates change, as people encounter new materials, ideas, and possibilities, suggested here by the use of imported items such as beads and buttons.
As all over the world, peoples’ ways of life in Kenya continue to change, but the objects shown here speak to a time when many could readily be divided into agriculturalists and pastoralists. Reflecting the museum’s Kenya collection as a whole, this website emphasizes the arts of pastoral peoples. At least in former times, many of these groups moved from place to place in a cyclical annual pattern to ensure sufficient food and water for their herds. This lifestyle encouraged the creation of light, portable household objects. For many of these peoples, too, personal adornment has traditionally been a way not only to show individual and ethnic style but also to indicate one’s position in society.
This site is an ongoing project. Visitors, particularly those with first-hand experiences with the object types presented here, are invited to submit corrections and additional information.