Kenyan women artists exhibit their work

  Florence Wangui’s portraits of Kuku displayed at Celebrating Emerging Women Artist exhibition. Photo/Margaretta wa Gacheru
Florence Wangui’s portraits of Kuku displayed at Celebrating Emerging Women Artist exhibition. Photo/Margaretta wa Gacheru 

The month of March has become a de facto one for international women’s exposes thanks to the United Nations setting aside March 8 as the International Women’s day.

In Nairobi, this has meant that several creative arts centres are currently holding exhibitions on women. At the Alliance Francaise, there’s the Festival CulturElles featuring live performances by young Kenyan women as well as documentary films and award-winning photography by and about women.

At the Nairobi National Museum, there is a six women artists’ exhibition entitled Celebrating ‘Emerging’ Women Artists until the end of the month.

And at the Goethe Institute, Michael Soi’s collection of 42 portraits of Kenyan women will open tomorrow evening, March 23rd at 7pm and run through to April 12th.

Yet out of all the expositions running this month, it was only the French that featured live performances by young Kenyan women and only the National Museum that has mounted works by Kenyan women artists.

The performers were only given one-night stands at the Alliance Francaise, but at least we got a taste for local spoken word artists like Anne Moraa orating with gifted school girls from Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, storytellers Arts and Oaks, and Namatsa who blended her poetry with melodious song.

And listening to Jennifer ‘Ati Sanaa’ perform on the traditional nyatiti, the traditional Luo harp which is normally only played by male musicians, was a special treat last Friday night.

The visual art exhibition that promises to be the most engaging, impressive, colourful and celebratory of Kenyan women is Michael Soi’s at Goethe Institute. His Face of Nairobi show is part of GI’s ‘Sasa Nairobi’ series which has run since 2008 and aims to showcase contemporary Kenyan art.

Soi’s collection includes 42 ‘faces’ of young Kenyan beauties. Clearly meant to symbolise the country’s 42 ethnic communities, Soi’s art implicitly sends out a timely message of women’s unity.

In contrast to last year when Alliance Francaise’s art exhibition on Being Wanjiku was both implicitly and explicitly political, this year, no one came close to acknowledging women’s role in Kenya’s electoral process apart from Soi.

One Kenyan artist who’s never shy to have his art express his personal opinions, be they related to sports, politics or gender issues unearthed from inside local strip clubs and pubs, Soi’s Face of Nairobi is ‘tame’ in comparison to some of the artistic statements he makes featuring women.

But his genuine affection for women and girls is best seen at his studio at The GoDown art centre where his co-productions painted with his four-and-a-half year-old daughter Malli are permanently on show.

At Nairobi National Museum, not all six women artists whose artworks fill the walls of the Creativity Gallery are ‘emerging’ out of nowhere.
Several are self-taught, and two of them, Zipporah Irari and Lilian Achieng Wayodi, both of whom have fun doing abstract expressionist work using bright, bold and splashy colours have never mounted public exhibitions before.

Two others are Kenyatta University graduates in Fine Arts. Caroline Khakula is a ceramic artist who founded the House of Nubia where she was recently joined by fellow KU graduate and ceramicist Lilian Baronyo Ayieng’a whose ‘pit-fired’ clay shard and acrylic paintings on canvas are some of the most innovative works in this show. Her Disintegration of Africa is slightly disheartening, but her Crucifixion has a clear, clean modernist message.

Gemini Vaghela hasn’t been specifically trained in fine art, but her academic background in ‘interactive multimedia technologies’, photography and IT clearly qualifies her to experiment in semi-abstract landscape painting as she does in this exhibition.

The artist whose work I find most striking in this ‘emerging artists’ show is Florence Wangui, the microbiologist whose passion for drawing compelled her to shift her scientific studies from the lab to The GoDown where her mentor in charcoal drawing is Patrick Mukabi.

Flo’s delicate and detailed portraits of farmyard hens and roosters first attracted attention at the GoDown’s annual Art Bits exhibition in 2012, after which she was selected to be part of the Muthaiga Club’s Centenary Art Exhibition early this year.