Down-to-earth Kenyan art at Red Hill Gallery


William Wambugu and his containers

Wafula, Walala and Wambugu: Three Kenyans who didn’t have much in common until they were contacted by Red Hill Gallery owner and curator Hellmuth Rossler.

The three are all artists, although they each work in different genres with different styles and types of mixed media. One is a sculptor, the other a painter and silkscreen printer, and the third specialises in pen and ink drawings in fine lines and meticulous detail.

What they do have in common is they all agreed to exhibit at Red Hill Gallery in an untitled exhibition that opened last Sunday, September 8 to run through the month.

Mr Rossler has been a personal collector of East African art for many years, even as he’s been a public health care worker serving around the region since the 1970s. A man of taste, his choice of these three is something of an endorsement of their art which fills his – and his wife Erica’s—spacious gallery along with part of their lawn.

It’s Peter Walala’s hand-stitched recycled plastic sculpture that takes up their front lawn and gives one a hint of what one might expect inside the gallery which is just a stone’s throw from where the Rosslers actually live.

Used plastic

In fact, working with recycled materials could be one of the hidden themes of this exhibition since two out of three—Walala and Wafula (both graduates of the Creative Art Centre in the mid-1990s) both take recycling seriously and work with scrap materials. In Walala’s case, he is currently working with plastics (though he also sculpts with wood scraps and papier mache).

He’s partial to used plastic containers which he mostly melts down and moulds into the shapes of his choice. They can look like the semi-abstract horse sculptures which he shaped after allowing the melting process to determine how the plastics blend together colour-wise.

Alternatively, he can lay out un-melted plastic pieces like thin chapati (pancake) dough. Then he slices them into multi-coloured strips which he staples together into something flat that resembles cloth.

“At that point, I’m thinking like a tailor imagining what I’ll make out of my cloth,” he told BDLife.

For this exhibition, he’s designed suit coats in variegated hues out of his amazing plastic ‘cloth’. Ironically, Walala’s plastic jackets bear a peculiar resemblance to several of the men’s suit coats found in Michael Wafula’s mixed media paintings.

Wafula is the other artist who creates art out of leftovers that someone else might consider garbage or junk. In his case, it’s the old screens he used to do his silkscreen print jobs (a commercial line he pursues so he can engage in more philanthropic ventures, like setting up Kijiji Art Studio in Kayole and another new art studio in Western Kenya, where he invites jobless school leavers to come learn about and create their own works of art).

His colourful suit coats are symbolic of the stylish way that Kenyan conmen deceive the public that they are someone ‘professional’ when they are not. The profession could be that of a banker, priest or pin-striped politician, but their coats often conceal self-serving hidden agendas rather like the masks we’ve seen in the art of another Kenyan artist, Anthony Okello.

William Wambugu has also worked with recycled materials, including cardboard boxes. And for years, this self-taught artist drew on old exercise books using biro pens, which was all he could afford back then.

But once he showed his notebooks to the Nairobi-based Italian curator Samantha Ripa di Meana , his fortunes changed. He now draws with special pens on imported papers, although he remains true to his subject matter.

Wambugu continues to draw the material culture of contemporary working Kenyans, be they brick layers, humble farmers or nomads. His studies are of everything from Kenyans’ shoes to their sofas and stools to their hand tools and household containers.

He’s got more than 40 detailed drawings in this show, some coloured with crayons, magic markers and inks, others strictly black and white. They’re a veritable archive of his work from the past three years, and they have both an anthropological and an artistic appeal.

All three artists have exhibited extensively in Kenya and all have also shown their work overseas. In their Red Hill show, their diverse art forms offer a rich snapshot of their current expressions of creativity.

Meanwhile, on September 17 another exhibition of art constructed with recycled plastics opens at Alliance Francaise. Nigerian artist Ifeoma Anyaeji’s ‘Plasto-sculptures’ show will feature tapestries that she’s conceived while working at The GoDown on an art residency since late July.