Group exhibitions by Kenyan artists are great opportunities to see a wide range of creative expression at a go. Yet they pose a challenge to media people like me who want to comment on the art but never have enough space to say meaningful things about all the artists’ works at once.
The recent Barclays Atelier Art Exhibition at Nairobi National Museum posed such a challenge since only six out of the 32 artists who submitted their best work to the Atelier competition shared the limelight (namely Wambui Kamiru, Cyrus Nganga, Jackie Karuti, Brian Omolo, Maral Bolouri and Kevin Irungu).
Yet there were others who also presented interesting artworks for consideration. Among them were painters and multimedia artists like Mbuthia Maina, Samuel Njuguna, Leena Shah and Paul Ondidi among others.
Leena’s art was especially intriguing since she’s a Kenyan artist whose paintings and prints haven’t been out in the public domain since the late 1990s when she exhibited with One Off Gallery’s Carol Lees at Village Market.
Her absence from the local visual arts scene since then was largely due to her being out of the country. But just because she’s been away hasn’t meant her passion for painting, drawing and printmaking has diminished or died.
On the contrary, she’s been in countless group and solo shows in every big city where she’s been based with her family. That includes London, New York and Johannesburg. In New York, she mainly exhibited in group shows as a member of the New York Art Students League.
“That was like a dream come true for me since I painted alongside not only American artists but also artists from all over the world,” said Leena whose main media of expression before landing in New York were charcoal, chalk and pastels.
“It was in New York that I was first introduced to acrylic paints,” she confessed. “Now acrylic is my main medium of expression.”
Prior to moving overseas with her family, the 43 year old mother of one says art has always played a primary role in her life.
“Art is like breathing to me. I cannot do without it.”
Convinced her passion for art is in her genes, she says her grandmother was an artist and her father, despite his being a businessman was also very artistic.
“But during their days growing up, practicing art was seen exclusively as a hobby, not as a profession,” she said, admitting she also had to endure derision from family friends who still believed the stereotypic view that art isn’t a sustainable way to live.
Nonetheless, her family encouraged her art studies all the way from primary school through secondary at Imani School in Thika. They were especially proud of her during Diwali when Leena excelled at the practice of the Indian art form ‘Rangoli’ since it was an important element of the annual Asian celebrations.
They even endorsed her overseas art studies at Manchester University in the UK. But the logistics of living abroad without family or friends’ support was difficult and lonely for this vivacious young woman. She lasted less than a year, then came home where she quickly found work in the travel business.
This was now the early 1990s and the local arts scene was heating up.
“I began attending artist’s workshops at Alliance Francaise, going to exhibitions at the National Museum and I continued to dream of being an artist full time.”
That dream became more real after she got a job as a graphic designer with a small company called Ismana Designs. Then she met Carol Lees who liked her art and invited her to take part in her Affordable Art exhibitions at Village Market. In effect, her artistic career took off after that.
“That was the first time I saw how well my paintings and prints could sell,” said Leena who landed in New York not long after that. Admitting she wasn’t keen to leave the Big Apple after just two years, she said she felt like she was finally ‘living her dream’.
“When I wasn’t painting, I was visiting galleries and museums and artists’ studios.”
But to her surprise, life in London (where her husband Raj was transferred) was almost as blissful as New York.
“I took art courses at the Hampsted School of Art and at St. Martin’s where I specially studied oil painting.” She also painted every day in East London where she shared an art studio with 22 other international artists.
Subsequently, her family moved to South Africa which she said wasn’t easy. Nonetheless, Leena was prolific, participated in many group and solo shows. She also donated some of her art to charity auctions which earned big brands for needy recipients.
Now that Leena’s back in Kenya (having returned in January 2014), she’s happy to have found a thriving contemporary arts scene. And while she wasn’t selected to be one of the six Atelier exhibition winners who will take part in the regional competition later this year, she’s already got her work in galleries like the popular one at Diani Beach in Mombasa.
Meanwhile, she continues to paint every day, only now she’s got new inspiration in the shape of her eight year old daughter who she claims “is a better artist than I am.” Whether she’s right or not, only time will tell.