Kenya has many more amazing women visual artists than is generally recognised.
This point was confirmed this past March when two major exhibitions of works by women artists were held during International Women’s Day celebrations, one at Alliance Francaise, another at Nairobi National Museum.
Women like Maggie Otieno, Amina Abdalla, Beth Kimwele, Leena Shah and Nduta Kariuki were just a few of those who displayed either their paintings, sculptures or installations during March.
However, the works of one of our most globally-acclaimed female artists wasn’t in either exhibition.
Instead, Beatrice Wanjiku Njoroge was busy preparing for the one-woman showcase of her latest paintings that is ending this week at One Off Gallery, where the artworks of Ehoodi Kichapi will go up right after hers come down.
Wanjiku’s art tends to be intensely personal and deeply disturbing to anyone uncomfortable seeing haunting portraits that reflect the darker side of the human psyche.
She’s an artist who doesn’t care to paint pretty pictures or art for its own sake.
Instead, she prefers to delve deeply into the dark recesses of human consciousness and explore, through her art, a whole range of emotive ideas and uncommon concerns that have broader, more profound psychological and existential significance.
Wanjiku’s ungarnished honesty, sensitivity and unfathomable depth of insight and expression are among the reasons that her works have been exhibited so widely in Scandinavia and Europe as well as along the East Coast of the US where it was recently exhibited in New York City.
Her One Off exhibition, entitled ‘Divine Discontent’ is no exception to her style of exploring ideas and issues that she’s disturbed by and which we, in turn, may also find distressing.
All the paintings derive from what she calls her ‘Strait Jacket’ series; that title alone can conjure up a whole range of alarming issues—everything from institutional violence and the suppression of individual expression to insanity and inhumane incarceration.
Strait jackets can also be used to constrain unruly anti-social misfits, unconventional non-conformists and even eccentric creative artists who could easily fall into any one of those categories.
So this show seems to have as much of a social dimension to it as it has a psychological one. Her works seem to reflect a rebellion against social norms that claim the power to determine who deserves to be constrained and who’s perceived to be a threat to society.
Seen in this light, one could suggest that Divine Discontent makes a profoundly political – as well as psychological -- statement, one that not only challenges social norms but also dictatorial powers that be.
Wanjiku is a woman who is already having an international following. Unfortunately, like increasing numbers of Kenyan artists, she’s better known abroad than at home; but hopefully, in future, local audiences will be more inclined to value their own and not wait until the rest of the world adores them first.
Meanwhile, there are a number of other solo and group exhibitions currently underway in Nairobi. For instance, Mike Chalo, a former ‘star’ student of Patrick Mukabi, hit the jackpot this month as he’s got two outstanding exhibitions going on simultaneously from last week.
One is at the Talisman Restaurant where his ‘Jua Kali 2’ exhibition has gone up exactly one year after the success of his first Jua Kali show at the same venue.
The other, at Banana Hill Gallery, also contained a broad selection of oil paintings focused on the theme of local working people.
And as for group shows, at the Art Space, Wambui Kamiru Collymore has curated a collection of works by Dennis Muraguri, Gakunju Kaigwa, Anne Mwiti and Osbourne Macharia among others.
At Karen Village, Ms Mwiti curated an exhibition of Kenyatta University art students; and at the Sankara Hotel, Carol Lees has just mounted more ‘Recent Works’ by local artists consistently seen at One Off Gallery.
Continuing at the Nairobi National Museum is the ‘Pots and Identities’ exhibition featuring both ancient and contemporary pots as well as works by ceramists like Waithera Chege, Magdalene Odundo and Edward Njenga.
Eric Gitonga’s Bugs of Brackenhurst is also ongoing at the Brackenhurst Community Centre.
Finally, Esprit gallery and the Little Gallery open this weekend with Jared Njuguna’s ‘Passions of Nature’ art exhibition.