Artists bring colour to the Talisman

 Tabitha Wa Thuku  with her piece of work | Charles Kamau
Tabitha Wa Thuku with her piece of work | Charles Kamau  Nation Media Group

The Talisman restaurant in Karen is one of the most fashionable venues for showing contemporary Kenyan art. It’s also one of the most sought-after spaces among local and global artists since many of its patrons are keen art lovers who buy - especially when the price is right.

“Unfortunately some local artists have been persuaded to jack up their once affordable prices,” said the restaurant’s new manager and chef Marcus...” They seem to forget that among our customers are locals who aren’t inclined to pay a fortune for a work of art.”

Tabitha wa Thuku and Zihan Kassam both seem to have learned that lesson as they’ve kept the paintings in their current joint exhibition at Talisman fairly affordable.

This is especially good news in Tabitha’s case since the price for paintings by the veteran artist shot sky high while she was showing exclusively at Gallery Watatu where the management insisted that her works sell for prices comparable to those at international art fairs in places like Maastricht, Basel or Venice.

In spite of the high prices, Tabitha’s monumental mixed media paintings sold quite well at Watatu. Nonetheless, she moved on in 2011, first to Alliance Francaise to feature prominently in the International Women’s Day show, then to Vogue Gallery in Westlands, and now to link up with newcomer to the Nairobi art world, Zihan Kassam.



Making up for lost time, since the University of Western Ontario sociology graduate only returned to Kenya in late 2010, [having spent half her life in Canada], Zihan took part in no less than 10 group exhibitions in 2011 plus one solo show also at the Talisman.

“I started painting Kenyan landscapes while living abroad since I was homesick,” she says.

“The paintings in this show are similar to the ones I painted back then. All of them were inspired by my love of nature,” she adds. For me, her most striking expression of that affinity Blushing in the Light.

Tabitha, on the other hand, says she “went wild over the color red” most recently. Walking through Talisman’s front door confirms that fact.

Her monumental Red Blanket is a stunningly beautiful semi-abstract statement of the power and passion conveyed through that hue. She has several other flaming hot red paintings in this show. The rest are older, more subdued and subtle works, like her Honeymoon in which she blends muted earth-tones in a landscape that’s practically pastoral, idyllic.

Zihan also has several landscapes in this show which she curiously entitled Shelter for a Sage. She also features trees in paintings like Golden Haze and Cinders; however, her scenes are stark, with tree branches graceful but leafless, naked and somber.

The artist admits that those paintings reflect what she calls “the dark side of nature,” which she feels has a beauty all its own.

Two of the most charming of Zihan’s works are watercolours. The simplicity of her Apple Tree and Wheelbarrow both reveal a bright luminosity and fresh transparency that is absent from much of her other artworks.

Mixed media

Both women have been painting practically all their lives. Both prefer mixed media and both paint using everything from the palms of their hands to palette knives, but rarely with actual paint brushes.

Zihan also uses her fingernails, bits of hard cardboard and recycled rusty nails to etch into thick layers of acrylic paint. Meanwhile, Tabitha can use anything from kitchen cutlery, wooden sticks and tree twigs to woolen blankets to get a desired effect.

Her eclectic and improvisational approach to art is one reason Zihan says she wanted to exhibit with her, adding that she’s admired Tabitha’s art ever since her return to Kenya.

But if Tabitha’s art looks effortless, it belies years of training, first as a textile designer coming out of the then Kenya Polytechnic, then as a ceramicist who studied at the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art (BIFA), then as a glass artist learning from Nani Croze at Kitengela Glass, then as a sculptor inspired by Morris Foit, and finally as a painter inspired by the likes of Rosemary Karuga, the grandmother of contemporary Kenyan art, who once taught in the same village where Tabitha was born.

Zihan has also taken art courses all her life, although she majored in Sociology and Literature.

Her main source of inspiration she says is the unnamed ‘sage’ noted in their show’s name. Shelter of the Sage will be on through November.