Eltayeb Dawelbeit has been in Kenya since the mid-1990s, one of a stream of highly-trained Sudanese artists who graduated from the University of Khartoum’s School of Fine Art and subsequently migrated to Nairobi having heard there was a thriving albeit emerging contemporary art scene here.
Most of the Sudanese emigrant artists arrived first at Paa ya Paa Art Centre having heard of Elimo Njau, the Tanzanian-Kenyan artist and gallery owner who is renowned for having started Kenya’s first indigenous African-owned art gallery in 1965.
He did so with several other Kenyans as well as the Briton who founded Kenyatta University’s Department of Fine Art, Terry Hirst (who’s best known as a brilliant cartoonist).
Eltayeb is one of those who passed through Paa ya Paa, but having special skills in textile design he quickly found a place to share his talents at Kiko Romeo fashions with Scottish designer Ann McCreath.
Eltayeb has never stopped designing fabrics and fashions, but his first love is actually painting as one will see if you venture up towards Limuru to the Red Hill Art Centre.
There, he has a one-man exhibition of amazing paintings, drawings and sculptures crafted out of ‘found objects’ that he’s collected from anywhere and everywhere, and then reassembled into intricate and richly textured shapes that grab one’s eye if for no other reason than curiosity.
But his line drawings of saintly-looking men are where Eltayeb’s artistic expertise shines most clearly. His use of line is delicate and graceful; his characters have sensitive, thoughtful features.
They stand in sharp contrast to his ‘fragmented faces’ that dominate much of the show. These are mainly semi-abstract profiles of souls who have more anonymity than his line-drawn portraits.
Yet the appeal of fragmented faces has as much to do with the faces as with the found items used to create the artwork.
Eltayeb doesn’t work on canvas for the most part. Instead, he collects bits and pieces of ‘junked’ wood that others felt no value in but he disagreed. His love of junk yards and jua kali shops in Gikomba is well known and what he has done with what others see as junk is transform it into priceless works of art.
They are not really ‘priceless’ as Hellmuth Rossler, curator of the Red Hill Gallery and specifically of El Tayeb’s current exhibition has created a pricelist together with the artist that looks reasonable in light of the artist’s reputation and acclaim both in East Africa and beyond.