August is the month for local artists to show their stuff

Zihan Kassam’s  ‘‘Echo Pond.’’ PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
Zihan Kassam’s ‘‘Echo Pond.’’ PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Many Kenyan artists are on display around the city during the month of August. Many have teamed up to mount group exhibitions everywhere from OneOff Gallery and the Village Market to Shifteye Gallery and the Kenya Cultural Centre.

Village Market’s exhibition hall showcased an eclectic assortment of large paintings by Adrian Nduma, Patrick Kinuthia, Omosh Kindeh, Samuel Njuguna Njoroge and Yassir Ali.

At One Off, local artists make metaphorical paintings and sculpture that have political undertones even as they could be mistaken for lovely “art for art’s sake”, the sort that is apolitical and easy on the eye.

Kenya Cultural Centre has hosted the newest works by Boniface Maina, Michael Musyoka and James Njoroge while the Shifteye Gallery opens August 18 with an exhibition of works by John Kamicha and visiting artists from Kuona Trust.

In the meantime, there are at least three solo exhibitions, one at Banana Hill art centre where the Ugandan artist popularly known as Kaspa is exhibiting.


Another is at Shifteye where Yassir Ali’s work is up for a week. The other is at the Talisman where Zihan Kassam, the former art critic for The Star (who now writes for Daily Nation), is exhibiting her latest series of paintings until the end of the month.

Talisman is a restaurant that gets first class ratings from international travel and foodie guides like Trip Advisor. It gets accolades for its food, the quality of its service and rustic suburban setting in Karen, including its old rambling colonial-styled house situated on several acres of lush green gardens.

One thing that contributes to the eatery’s elegant ambience is the artwork by both British and Kenyan artists whose art rotates in and out every month, thus keeping the venue looking fresh and alive to the local art scene.

Occasionally, Talisman invites popular artists to come back so they can show off their most recent works.

This has been the case with a number of local artists, including Dickson Kaloki, Tom Mboya, Alex Mbevo, Katy McIntyre-Brown and now Zihan whose current exhibition titled Elysian Fields reflects clear evidence that she has grown and gained clarity and confidence in her own artistic voice.

In the past, Zihan has been most notable for her eclecticism, since she experimented with a wide range of styles, media, and concepts. One could see her versatility as a virtue but one could also see she was still exploring how her imagination, vision and creativity are best expressed.

The current show suggests that she has indeed found her visual voice since nearly all her paintings are not just pretty pictures or impressionistic reflections of nature, but also soothing balm to the soul.

The one issue I have in relation to Zihan’s paintings is their impersonality as she doesn’t feature a single human being in her semi-impressionistic art. But then neither did Monet in his Water Lily series.

What she seems more interested in is experimenting with colour blending and discovering the creative consequences of mixing acrylic paint on everything from canvas and plywood to hessian cloth. She tried painting with coloured dyes but those works are the least successful in her show.

In fact, it’s her miniature works on plywood that I find most striking. Hung strategically on Talisman’s bar, they reflect her best blending of organic colours. They also contrast much of her work in the rest of her show as they are small compared to most of the larger canvases.

What I found most intriguing was that some of her most soulful work, mainly set in blues and blacks, are winter scenes which I suspect are visions or recollections of her long life as a student and employee in Canada where winters are rugged but often wistful and awesome like her pine trees and snow drifts (sights we rarely see in Kenya).

Still, her work is beautiful and has a soothing effect. They are mainly decorative though, devoid of any sort of social statement.

Elysium in Greek mythology is something like heaven so it’s no surprise that one can feel a sense of peace looking into her paintings and seeing vast expanses and long distance perspectives.

Indeed, like the French Impressionists whose art cannot be fully appreciated except from a distance, many of Zihan’s paintings have a similar quality, the kind that says, stand back to see what I am talking about.

It’s not about some profound or supernatural message. It’s simply about seeing through one’s mind’s eye and wondering if heaven looks something like that.