Two of Nairobi’s finest art galleries opened art exhibitions this past weekend for two of East Africa’s most exciting contemporary artists.
The public was invited to view the most recent works by Richard Kimathi at OneOff Gallery and Abushariaa Ahmed at the new Red Hill Art Gallery.
The only problem was that their shows were opening at the same time last Sunday such that fans of the artists had to scramble from show to show in order to savour the works as well as see fellow art lovers who also appreciate contemporary art of the region.
There’s no denying that gallery openings are social events that are meeting points for members of the Kenyan art world.
Gallery owners like Carol Lees of OneOff and Hellmuth and Erica Rossler of Red Hill are all excellent hosts whose hospitality offers an added incentive to come out and see what the artists have been up to in recent times.
Abushariaa’s Retrospective exhibition is very different from Kimathi’s since Lees as OneOff’s curator chose to hang the artist’s most recent works. Entitled Little Dresses, Kimathi’s collection combines essentially three subjects which he explores: one, a lovely set of little girls looking guileless and pretty in pastel frocks accented with little shoes in contrasting colours.
If one is tempted to ask, why little girls, one only needs to recall that a master like Degas was also intrigued by the innocence and charm of the girl child.
Kimathi’s second subject reflects more social commentary than is usually obvious in his art. His men totting guns right between their legs is clearly suggestive of the masculinity issue that many male gunslingers have.
Being macho and powerful is what some men feel they get from having a gun. Ironically, he painted his gunners before the issue of gun control became such a hot topic in the West, but his clean, clear images of guns for genitals could easily become iconic. They make powerful statements as Kimathi says more with less.
His third set of paintings convey a sweet romanticism that he shapes in life-size forms whose intimacy, painted in glowing green, suggests a ‘first love’. Remember that one? The love you hoped to savour for all time, the one that never grows sour or bitter or broken.
Kimathi, like Abushariaa, has an international clientele who respect whichever imaginative avenues he chooses to meander on.
Both artists have arrived at a point where their art is being avidly collected by patrons, not a few of whom see their art as investments which will only accrue in value over time.
Two of the more avid collectors of Abushariaa’s art combined forces with the artist to present a glorious offering of his best works at the Red Hill Art Gallery.
It’s a Retrospective of the last 20 years of his painting, starting from the time he first arrived in Kenya from Khartoum, Sudan, in 1993 up to the present.
Having come straight from the fine art college of the University of Sudan, Abushariaa already had a distinctive style, combining the semi-abstract with the iconic and blending it all in a rich, colourful palette.
The colours have gotten richer over the years; the iconography has also taken on a sharper and more delineated appeal.
Yet there has always been that definite flavour that is reflected in virtually all the Sudanese painters who have passed through Kenya, from El Tayeb to Ali Yasser to Abushariaa.
It has to do with a strong feeling for brilliant colour and texture and symbolism. It also comes out of a skilled self-assurance and aesthetic self-control, whether working in acrylic or oil, pen and ink on paper or mixed media.
What’s fascinating about this show is not just that its retrospective nature allows one to see that soulful development of the artist’s style and technique.
It is also that two of Abushariaa’s most avid collectors, Mohindra Shah formerly of Sarang Gallery and Hellmuth Rossler, and his wife Erica, of Red Hill Art Gallery, have contributed art from their private collections to enrich this exhibition of more than 90 paintings and drawings by the artist.
Currently based in Kampala, where he has found an even wider audience base than he’s had in Kenya, Abushariaa is definitely one of the most important contemporary artists to come out of East Africa.