As the Kenyan sky darkened on a cool spring evening, two light sources illuminated the manicured lawns and stone pathways of the oasis that is Eden Nairobi, a hotel that sits discreetly on a street lined with lush estates. The first was the silver streams of light emitted by a waning moon; the second was a winding string of pearl-white car headlights lined up at the property’s gates.
One by one, Kenyans draped in colorful shawls, high heels, and crisp white shirts made their way through the property’s sparse forest to a grand patio. Champagne glasses clinked in between hor d'oeuvres while laughter echoed. At the front of the space, the 25-year-old artist Margaret Njeri Ngigi unveiled a recent photograph, featuring a woman in a headscarf against a nebulous blue background.
Elsewhere at the party, there was talk of up-and-coming artist Peter Elungat, whose figurative, dream-like paintings and secret abstract ones have been shown at One off Contemporary Art Gallery and GravitArt Gallery in Nairobi. Model manager Dorothy Oliech, who recently sent a handful of her talents to Paris Fashion Week, commanded adoration from others while donning a gorgeous silk trench coat made by the Kenyan fashion designer Sevaria. Two other Nairobi-based designers, Katungulu Mwendwa, who makes beautiful ethically made garments, and Ami Doshi Shah, known for her sculptural accessories, were also spotted mingling. Examples of both of their work are currently on display at the V+A Africa Fashion Exhibition in South Kensington. Artist Wambui Kamiru, best known for her grand art installations which have been shown at Biennale, Poland and Denmark’s Trapholt Museum of Modern art, admired the gallery wall of paintings and sculptures while young writer Semhar McKnight was seen nearby.
Anna Trzebinski, the mastermind behind Eden Nairobi and a key player in the city’s social and creative scenes, is easily recognizable through the crowd with her beaming red hair. If there were a Mrs. Astor of Kenya, that honor would be crowned to her. After finishing the hotel at the beginning of 2021, Trzebinski thought about ways she could expand its purpose. “I knew I didn’t want it to just be heads on beds,” she told me. During the pandemic lockdown, she had many personal conversations that tackled questions such as: “Why do Kenyans need external validation” and “Who are we as a country?”
Since then, Eden Nairobi has become a central hub for the creative community. Along with other Kenyan creatives, such as the team behind an innovative artist residency, a textile producer who is reviving Kenya’s strong history in the field, and designers who are championing local artisans, the hotel is leading the way as the city defines its artistic identity.
How does the local creative scene look different from, say, New York, London or Milan? “It’s rooted in the process. And we don’t emphasize this need for production,” says Kibe Wangunyu, a videographer who runs the residency Untethered Magic with artists Syowia Kyambi and Dennis Kiberu. “Artists come here to learn and unlearn. The space encourages residents to think critically about their practice without the pressure of throwing an exhibition or offering works for one afterward.”
Among the winding paths that connect studio spaces outlined by dry brush, Kyambi, Kiberu, and Wangunyu hope to create not only an artistic opportunity but a safe space where these difficult topics can be further discussed and dismantled. “Art is a means to address these things, and shouldn’t be forced by this Western demand for production,” notes Kyambi.
“This is a home, not an institution,” says Kyambi. “And, the property is designed in that way. People can live with one another and have discussions without being on top of each other like other contemporary residency buildings that stack you in one building. The point is to build something sustainable.”
This desire to foster a community that benefits Kenyans in more ways than one is reflected in the local fashion industry as well. As the mainstream fashion world searches for ways to create more responsibly, Kenyans are dipping into their own talent and heritage, finding sustainable solutions along the way.
“I was surprised to learn that a country like Kenya, which is rich in artisans that are spread throughout the country, doesn’t have a lot of original textiles,” says Gladys Macharia, the co-founder of textile and home accessories company Siafu Home. “Historically, Kenya was a leader in history, almost in line with Singapore.”
Now, Macharia trains artisans to create hand-loomed textiles that are transformed into cushions, towels, and more. Recently, major international fashion brands have started requesting samples. “I think designers value slow and handmade craftsmanship, especially now that the world is moving so fast,” Macharia tells me.
But this is more than just creating beautiful patterns. It’s about forging a national identity: “Locally skilled artisans and craftsmen keep the trades of the past alive because they preserve the knowledge and artistry of the craft,” notes Rushina Shah, the founder of the clothing, homeware and jewelry line Ra by Rushina. Like Macharia, Shah works with local artisans; she also co-curates the boutique at Eden Nairobi.
“As a country that hasn’t been considered a pioneer in the fashion industry, yet has served as inspiration for the runway, we seek master craftspeople who help bring our collections to life,” Shah says. “We want to evoke a sense of culture through each piece, deeply rooted in where it originates.”
In Kenya, fashion brands often teeter between traditional and modern. Trzebinski’s line exemplifies this by utilizing sleek silhouettes adorned with natural materials like feathers and authentic leather. Sevaria, on the other hand, taps into avant-garde aesthetics.
Back at the Eden Nairobi party, Trzebinski sticks around as the evening’s chatter dies down and guests—designers, artists, photographers, intellectuals, writers, movers, and shakers—slowly trickle back home. The shared ideas, shared drinks, and shared memories still linger in the air. Art in Kenya is much more than creating beautiful objects. “The talent across the board is exploding and exploring so many different mediums and forms,” Trzebinski tells me.“They are entirely unafraid to stick to the country’s strong identity and DNA rather than conform to the outside world.”
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EAT & DRINK
The River Cafe is a tranquil experience for the eyes and a blissful one for the tastebuds. They serve lovely cafe fare, like colorful salads and hefty steaks, but their butternut soup reigns supreme.
Bridges Organic Restaurant proves that the best local fare doesn't require a white tablecloth. Here, you’ll find authentic Kenyan dishes prepared with organically-grown produce and meats.
Eden Nairobi is nothing short of an oasis, with art covering the walls in every room. For extra privacy, go for a duplex apartment.
For luxury-minded travelers with a sense of adventure, Lengishu offers rustic-chic rooms with views of the Borana Conservancy, an infinity pool, safari drives and rhino tracking. Dinners and downtime take place in a central grand room. The best way to book the lodge is through The Luxury Safari Company.
Ra by Rushina is the place for home accessories, linen apparel, and glossy brass jewelry galore.
Sevaria offers contemporary clothing with a tinge of the avant-garde. Think two-tone trench coats, embroidered party dresses, and jackets with swishy beading.