Kenyan art truly on the cutting edge

‘‘Black Beauty’’ by Peter Elungat. PHOTO |
‘‘Black Beauty’’ by Peter Elungat. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Sankara Nairobi in Westlands was really smart when they made the decision to essentially brand themselves as the one hotel in Nairobi that’s on the cutting edge of contemporary Kenyan art.

Exploding art scene

Cognisant of the fact that the local art scene was exploding, the owners initially called in Marc van Rampelberg to curate its permanent collection, which includes everyone from vintage artists like Jak Katarikawe, Yony Waite, Morris Foit, Sane Wadu, Timothy Brooke and Kivuthi Mbuo to a slightly younger generation of Kenyans including Patrick Mukabi, Chelenge van Rampelberg and Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos among others.

It’s a fabulous collection but in the last few months, Sankara has taken that decision even more seriously by linking up with One Off Gallery’s Carol Lee who is now curating quarterly exhibitions of artworks by another younger generation of ‘cutting edge’ Kenyan artists.

That’s how Carol came up with a show featuring the “Recent Works” of a dozen artists, all of whom not only work closely with her but also fulfill my concept of cutting edge.


Peter Ngugi

For instance, Peter Ngugi not only redefines the meaning of ‘mixed media’ when he crushes old metal tea cups and uses them metaphorically in his satiric series of paintings that he entitles ‘Man’s wealth measured by cups of chai’ which obviously alludes to the country’s current crisis with corruption (given that ‘chai’ is sheng for bribe).

Kamwathi and Richard Kimathi

Then both Peterson Kamwathi and Richard Kimathi pick up on a theme that’s also being artistically explored at Circle Art Gallery, which is the plight of the myriad migrants fleeing for their lives from war zones only to be refused entry into Europe ostensibly due to fear of terrorism.

Kimathi’s ‘Vocal series’ of oil paintings is haunting and evocative, especially once you realise he’s probably painting the skulls of migrants that appear to somehow be vocalizing their tragic tales.

Kamwathi is slightly more cryptic and spartan in his singular forms which look iconic although their significance is a bit too subtle for me.

Timothy Brooke and Beatrice Wanjiku

Timothy Brooke’s two oil paintings in the Sankara show are classics although “Langata Road’ is Brooke at his best, revealing the way modernity has intruded on Kenya’s pastoralist people (read Maasai) whose herds can’t easily cross the hazardous highway.

Some of the ‘recent works’ are continuations of ideas and styles of work that have pre-occupied the artists for some time.

Beatrice Wanjiku continues to dwell in dark shadows with two more of her ‘strait jacket’ series; yet her images are more formidable and full-bodied as they also seem to have serious stories to tell.

Peter Elungat

Peter Elungat continues to paint elegant black beauties who seem to spring out of a more serene, less cynical point in time. In the same vein, Chelenge’s one beautiful primate bust has a humanised expression that, like Kimathi’s skulls, seems suffused with a living presence.

Ehoodi Kichapi

Ehoodi Kichapi also integrates current social issues into his art, although his highly symbolic ‘Baquiat’-style of painting plus collage inclines one to simply appreciate the visual antics of his oblique technique.

Anthony Okello

Meanwhile, Anthony Okello’s recent works are by far the most eclectic as we can see both a return to curious shapes and faces that have earned him an immense following in the past but also a progression conveyed through his working with new media and subject matter which is refreshing.

Harrison Mburu

Finally, Harrison Mburu’s riveted metal giraffes are classics, reflecting the style of wildlife sculpting that he’s best known for.
It’s a show that will be on at Sankara until April 30th.

More exhibitions

Meanwhile, there are art exhibitions on at Alliance Francaise featuring works by Clavers Odhiambo and Richard Njogu, at Banana Hill, at Circle Art and a brand new collection of Sudanese and Egyptian art is opening this Sunday at Red Hill Gallery.

But I can’t resist revisiting the artists’ work that I saw in Lamu during the island’s first ever Arts Festival. I was especially dazzled by the watercolour works of Sophie Walboeffe whose paintings consistently conveyed the magical spells that our equatorial sun spreads over the island.

Sophie was usually outside before dawn every day in the month preceding the festival, awaiting the dawn to break so she could get exquisite natural-light images and paint those uncanny hues.

Her ability to blend colours so as to be truthful to Mother Nature’s shimmering mix of rainbow hues is seemingly supernatural.

But all the artists who exhibited in Lamu during the Arts Festival gave their best to make that inaugural event an overwhelming success and probably to ensure they’ll be invited back another time to create art in that heavenly environment.