There was a spectacular showcase of contemporary Kenyan art at the Village Market through the last few days of February.
The group show, featuring nearly 40 Kuona-connected artists, was given way too short a booking for the public to come out in full force to enjoy the exhibition.
Nonetheless, the charity fund-raiser entitled ‘Peace through Service,’ which was organised by Kuona Trust in collaboration with the Rotary Club of Nairobi East made the most dazzling usage of Village Market’s Exhibition Hall that I’ve ever seen.
The hall has hosted everything from the annual ManjanoArt Competition to everyone from the Lake Basin and Ngecha artists to individuals like Peter Elungat and Geraldine Robarts.
But the Kuona artists’ showcase was an eye-opening experience, enabling any doubters to be liberated from any illusion that Kenya is only famous for its sandy beaches, safaris and wildlife. The reality is that Kenyan art is fresh, vibrant, rapidly evolving and diverse.
Some of the artists whose works were on display are already well -known locally, such as the Citizen-TV children’s art teacher and painter Patrick Mukabi, sculptor Gakunju Kaigwa whose fiberglass lions graced Nairobi malls and city streets a few years back and sculptress Maggie Otieno who’s currently heading the East Africa branch of the Arterial Network.
Many of the others are widely known among fellow artists, yet the public at large may not be well acquainted with, for instance, the Maasai Mbili artists who took part in this show, including Ashif, Kevo Stero, and Wycliffe Opondo.
Others whose names and artworks ought to be well-known here are John Silver Kimani (who might be better known in Holland than in Kenya), Cyrus Nganga (whose wirey, iconic C-Stunner shades are currently on show in Los Angeles). Paul Onditi (whose emblematic character Smokey is featured in nearly all his art work mirroring the artist’s own stroll through life) and Dennis Muraguri whose matatu prints are perfect stand-ins for the mobile matatu art we used to see on nearly all Nairobi streets.
One aspect of the Peace Through Service show that stood out strongly for me was the distinctly Kenyan flavour of the artistry. The Nairobi cityscapes of MaryAnn Muthoni and Omosh Kindeh reflected essentially Kenyan contours.
Kenyans were also effectively portrayed in sculptures by David Mwaniki and Anthony Wanjau as well as by the colourful bus and bar paintings by the family team of Michael Soi and his young daughter Mali.
Moses Nyawanda’s portrait of middle-aged market mamas was very different from the rotund mamas that Mukabi paints and also far removed from the rural mamas who were on the move in Fred Abuya’s stain-glass window-like painting; but they all reflect different dimensions of contemporary Kenyan life.
Other artists in the show are Kepha Mosoti whose wooden sculptures of scruffy, well-worn shoes and thread-bare blankets are beautiful in their ‘ordinary’ appeal. So are Kaigwa’s well-shaped stools and the backside of Jackie Karuti’s form-fitting shorts!
One stereotypic image of Kenya that was happily absent from this show was that of Maasai morans. Normally used to entice tourists to come visit the land of the ‘noble savage’, there was just one multi-coloured portrait of two Maasai maidens by Rosemary Ahoro which was a lovely contrast to the native cliché.
But Kuona also opens its doors to visiting artists from elsewhere in the region, such as Adil Rouf from Morocco, Ermias Ekube from Eritrea and Ali Yasser Mohammed, the Sudanese painter who’s been a resident of Kenya for many years.
Finally, some uninformed observers of Kenyan art claim we have few sculptors of merit, yet this exhibition debunks that claim as well, with the sculptures of Kaigwa, Mwaniki and Wanjau.
It also amplifies the three-dimensional forms of Meshak Oiro, Gor Soudan and Kevin Oduor whose sculpture of Wanjiku, Kenya’s Every Woman currently resides in the Chief Justice’s office to remind the public that Art is one of the best means of expressing the spirit of a people.
While the Peace through Service exhibition closes last week, all the art that wasn’t sold to raise funds for the Rotary club’s pet projects in Korogocho, Thika, Makindu and Kajiado will be on display for sale at Kuona Trust in Hurlingham.