Barely 48 hours after landing in Nairobi, I’m on a leafy terrace with a multinational crowd of Ghanaian businessmen, European architects, and Kenyan artists—some just home from the Venice Biennale, others on their way to Frieze Miami. The setting is electrified with chatter, and I’m deep in conversation with painter Shabu Mwangi. His exhibition—hosted by GravitArt, an online gallery that creates pop-up shows throughout the city—is the reason we’ve gathered at this private residence in the buzzy Westlands neighborhood.
I’m here not because I’m part of the jet-setting art-world elite but because of Hemingways Eden, a boutique hotel opened in 2021 by Anna Trzebinski. (She originally built it with her late husband, Tonio, as their family home in 1992.) I chose the Eden because of its promise to go beyond merely providing a nice place to sleep. Trzebinski is on a mission to connect visitors and locals to Nairobi’s creative scene through on-site hotel events and customized art immersion experiences. And she’s the right person to do it. Born in Germany and raised in Kenya, she’s a fashion designer whose connections run deep in the creative community. Rather than hire professional guides, she recruits friends who have made careers in the arts to lead the way to gallery openings, screenings, concerts, and more. Though the hotel was recently brought into the Kenya-based Hemingways Collection, Trzebinski’s influence remains.
The hotel itself is a showcase of creativity. The four-acre, tree-shaded grounds retain their private estate feel. Its nine rooms—many with canopy beds hand carved by artisans based on Kenya’s Lamu Island—are spread out over a main house and a studio annex. Artifacts from Kenya’s Samburu and Maasai cultures, along with items from Trzebinski’s sizable personal collection of contemporary paintings and sculptures by African artists, prepare my eye for the art I’m encountering in Nairobi.
“Africa is on fire in every discipline as far as art is concerned, and Nairobi is a vibrant hub of this,” Trzebinski says.
The energy and excitement surrounding contemporary art is exactly what the hotel’s private art experiences can offer travelers. My visit to GravitArt is part of a gallery crawl I’m on with Peter Achayo, an art aficionado, researcher, blogger, and walking encyclopedia of African artists. He’s introducing me to people and scenes I wouldn’t have been able to find on my own.
At the GravitArt show, I talk to Mwangi while I gaze at Supreme Cages, his oil painting on a nearby wall. It depicts a skeletal white figure, head down and hands folded, with an oppressive, heavy, red line hovering overhead. Mwangi has just returned from the well-regarded Documenta exhibition in Germany. He tells me the piece is his response to the media’s misguided impression that his work is only about the harsh realities of life in Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s largest slums, where he was raised and where he works with a youth-oriented art collective, Wajukuu Art Project.
“When you come from a place like Mukuru, sometimes people [assume] that you can’t think globally,” he says. “That’s something I push back on. In my work, I’m not just talking about Mukuru. I’m talking about global issues and how they have an impact on us all.”
At the next gallery, Kuona Artists Collective, a band is playing on a stage under the stars. Achayo introduces me to the young artist Ndunde Bulimo, who immediately hugs me. Minutes later, she’s guiding me into one of the venue’s shipping containers that double as showrooms, explaining the meaning behind her bright-hued woodblock prints. They depict men and women in headdresses and hats—a series about the personal motivations behind hair coverings. I zero in on a print of a woman in a cerulean headdress, who throws an intense stare at the viewer. Soon after, I leave the gallery a new patron of Nairobi art, the tubed-up print in hand, excited to be part of the conversation and grateful to Hemingways Eden for bringing me into it.