Elijah Ogira is one Kenyan artist whose works you won’t normally find exhibited in local galleries, art supply stores or up-market eateries.
That is not to say one of Kenya’s most influential sculptors hasn’t been exhibited in popular art centres in the past 20 years. Once upon a time, he was a regular at Gallery Watatu and Kuona Trust, and before that, at Paa ya Paa Art Centre.
Mentored by the likes of Elimo Njau and later by Gakunju Kaigwa among others, Mr Ogira initially trained at Kenya Polytechnic (now the Technical University) in graphic design.
But sculpture made far more sense to his creative sensibilities, to the point where by the mid 90s, he was actually running sculpture workshops for Kuona Trust and training promising artists like Maggie Otieno and Irene Wanjiru.
Both of these women are considered among Kenya’s finest sculptors today. Ms Otieno just completed a prestigious public art installation at the new Garden City Shopping Mall while Ms Wanjiru’s wood root sculptures are scattered all over Nairobi mostly in private collections.
Meanwhile, Mr Ogira continues training up-and-coming artists as apprentices who assist him in the well-run workshops that he’s opened not only in Nairobi and Mombasa but in Elementaita as well.
It’s at the workshops that one will see his organic approach to sculpture, and more particularly his amazing transformative power over tree stumps, trucks, branches and roots, changing them into both semi-abstract works of art and stunning works of functional art.
It’s in the functional art field that Mr Ogira’s apprentices have their hands full finishing off everything from beds and salad bowls to big- bottomed benches and elegant dinner table sets complete with elegant (yet earthy) hand-crafted chairs and beautifully grained tables.
All of these are Mr Ogira’s designs and all have that distinctive artistic touch that leaves one in no doubt that Mr Ogira is the creator and hand-craftsman to be credited with the creating the final form.
Yet it’s his semi-abstract art that’s the crowd-stopper and the work that speaks most resoundingly to me about the man’s unique artistic genius.
I first saw it in the 1990s at Gallery Watatu, but then didn’t see his sculptures again until the 2014 Christmas Fair at Nairobi Race Course.
I wanted to take home all of his wooden benches, chairs and man-sized masks.
That was wishful thinking, but his unconventional designs and collaborative creations partnering with Mother Nature have an enduring appeal to me.
Among the first Kenyan sculptors to create their art out of found objects, Mr Ogira has achieved some of his greatest success working in wood that he’s foraged from various spaces, including construction sites and people’s homes.
Yet he is ever mindful of the environmental issues associated with tree conservation and is careful not to do damage to living trees.
“I mainly excavate dead trees from local sites,” says Mr Ogira whose sculptures often reflect the graceful, curvaceous designs that nature built into her exquisite organic forms.
One reason, Mr Ogira opened his three workshops where he did was because they are all near spaces where unclaimed (dead) wood can be found in plenty.
For instance, at the Coast he finds driftwood on local beaches, most of which has been sun bleached and polished by the sea.
In Elementaita, he’s got forests to explore and in the Nairobi suburb of Kitisuru, he sometimes finds discarded planks and old wooden doors as well as rotting tree roots and beautifully grained stumps.
Meanwhile, Mr Ogira has been fortunate to have attended crash courses and art residencies in Europe where the focus has been on sculpting in hard stones such as granite and basalt. Those tutorials taught him a great deal about sculpting using new tools as well as new media.
They also opened his eyes to the infinite possibilities of sculpture no matter what the media. Previously, Mr Ogira’s experiments with stone were pieces he carved from soft building blocks.
But while attending a sculptors’ symposium in Dakar Senegal, he met one Japanese professor who organised courses for him to take in Germany where he learned to sculpt using power tools on hard stones.
That new-found proficiency is apparent in the sculptures he’s produced for commissioned artworks ever since.
But since wood is the most accessible art material that Mr Ogira has currently, it was a myriad of beautiful wood pieces that I saw when I recently visited his workshop in Kitisuru on Ngecha Road.
And while that workshop is not clearly marked ‘Ogira’s Art’, nonetheless, the lovely wooden pieces lined up at his workshop gate are a clear sign that something creative is going on in that green overgrown glen below.