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Muthaiga exhibition showcases the best of East African art

From Left: Morris Foit with sculpture and ‘‘Chelenge’’ by Fitsum. Photo/Margaretta wa Gacheru
From Left: Morris Foit with sculpture and ‘‘Chelenge’’ by Fitsum. Photo/Margaretta wa Gacheru 

After the recent East African art auction, with an impressive array of paintings and sculptures and which made well over Sh18.5 million, one didn’t imagine we could see another show in 2013 that topped the auction’s collection for spotlighting some of the very best of contemporary East African art.

But it’s been done in the shape of an awesome contemporary art exhibition in Muthaiga entitled Labyrinth: 50 years of Art in Kenya which runs through to November 24.

The collection features over 160 paintings, sculptures and woodcuts by mainly Kenyan artists.

Curated by the Belgian designer Marc van Rampelberg at the request of the Belgian ambassador Bart Ouvry, the exhibition officially opened last Friday when Mr and Mrs Ouvry opened their residence to local and foreign art lovers to view one of the most awesome collections of contemporary Kenyan art that I have ever seen.

Treasure trove

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Exquisitely hung by the curator and Carol Lees of One Off Gallery, the exhibition fills both the foyer of the residence and its spacious backyard with a veritable treasure trove of East African art.

Jam-packed with some of the most glorious artistic gems of an earlier period of Kenyan cultural history, the showcase was breathtaking both for the quality of the works and the magnitude of the works which was so vast it spilt out onto the front veranda where Chelenge van Rampelberg’s towering wooden statues - among them Adam graced the entrance of the elegant home.

There were paintings and sculptures from more recent times by such outstanding contemporary artists as Patrick Mukabi, Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi, Jackson Wanjau, Fitsum Berhe Wodelibanos (who like, Jak Katarikawe, has spent most of his life in Kenya) and Chelenge herself.

But what truly made Labyrinths such a show stopper and an event that I would call the art exhibition of the year were the artworks that emerged out of people’s private collections.

These include the early paintings of Jak Katarikawe, Sane Wadu and Kivuthi Mbuno as well as exceptional sculptures by Samwel Wanjau, Jackson’s father who passed on recently, Morris Foit and Gakunju Kaigwa.

Generations

The curator was circumspect about disclosing where some of the artwork came from. But as 75 per cent are not for sale, one can assume they are mostly part of local private collections.

There is little doubt that quite a few of the paintings and sculptures belong to Van Rampelberg who worked closely for many years with the late Ruth Schaffner who had bought Gallery Watatu from its founder Yony Waite in 1985.

Whomever the art belongs to, the Labyrinth collection cuts across generations and includes works which reflects some of the finest Kenyan art produced over the past 50 years.

We have never seen the artwork of first generation Kenyan artists, exhibited with the works of second generation artists showcased together in any single venue with third generation artists such as Gakunju Kaigwa, Chelenge van Rampelberg and Jackson Wanjau.

I would venture to describe artists such as Patrick Mukabi, Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi and Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos as fourth generation Kenyan or East African artists.

The classification is not really important except that it does reflect the fact that the Labyrinth collection ought to be kept intact.

Ideally, it ought to be bought by the government or specifically, the National Museums of Kenya, as a confirmation that contemporary Kenyan art is not only alive and thriving but that it also has a history dating back at least to the 1950s when Wanjau senior began carving handguns in the forest during the Mau Mau war of Independence.

What also makes this assemblage of work so impressive is that out of 162 artworks, as many as 62 are stunning sculptures by both the senior and junior Wanjau, by Morris Foit, Gakunju Kaigwa and Chelenge van Rampelberg.

Again, these works confirm the fact that Kenyan contemporary art has a sculptural legacy, contrary to the myth that Kenyans don’t do sculptures, except for Akamba curio carvings which are mostly sold as souvenirs.

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