Tidal wave of activity hits the Nairobi art scene

‘‘Unseen Bridge’’ by Paul Onditi. PHOTO |
‘‘Unseen Bridge’’ by Paul Onditi. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

There was a tidal wave of artistic activity that swooped into Nairobi over this past week which reflects a qualitative shift in aesthetic sensibilities; so much so that one can’t help feeling this city will never be the same.

Part of the tsunami-like wave relates to the fact that there were no less than three major exhibition openings over that span of time.

What’s more, none were ordinary or incidental openings. All were of historical significance; that is if one takes contemporary East African art seriously enough to see there’s an eruption of creative expression that deserves national, regional and even global recognition.

First off, a brand new art gallery was born last week when Circle Art Gallery opened its inaugural showcase featuring the art of 20 amazing young East African artists.

The diversity of their work was stunning in itself since multimedia is too meagre a term to embrace all that was displayed in a show entitled ‘Concerning the Internal.”


There were some oil or acrylic paintings (Zihan Kassam, El Tayeb, Sibylla Martin, Souad Abdel Rasoul and Dawit Abebe); but virtually all the painters used additional media, be it pastel, charcoal (Beatrice Wanjiku), crayon, ink, inkjet (Paul Onditi) or thread (Kerttu Maukonen).

Then there was installation art (Wambui Kamiru and Miriam Syowia Kyambi), video art (Jackie Karuti, Ato Malindi, Rehema Chachage, Wanja Kimani and Diana Kamara) and sculpture (Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga). Plus, the techniques used ranged from photography (Xavier Verhoest) and photocopy (Maral Bolouri) to engraving (Delphine Buysse), wood cut (Ephrem Solomon) and weaving (Gakunga).

But what was just as stunning as the artworks was the elegant look of the new Gallery with its pearly white simplicity and surprisingly expansive use of space.

Meanwhile, OneOff Gallery opened a one-woman exhibition last Sunday entitled ‘A Walk Through Jerusalem’ including a wide range of styles, media and techniques by Sophie Walbeoffe.

What made Sophie’s show special for me were two factors. One was the way OneOff doubled its gallery space by opening up a portion of its stables enabling us to see the awesome artistry of Sophie.

I’d anticipated seeing her lovely watercolours and wasn’t disappointed with her various ‘Views of Jerusalem’. But I hadn’t anticipated her wonderful woodcuts and silkscreen prints, particularly the one in which she superimposed all her miniature portraits of Middle Eastern peoples on top of a giant map of Israel.

But I confess it was her colourful abstract expressionist paintings, most of which she’d conceived upon her return to Kenya from the Middle East that captured my gaze and convinced me she is not only a water colourist but a marvelously multi-talented artist.

The same Sunday that Sophie’s show opened, Nairobi Gallery’s ‘Two Geniuses’ of East African art opened, featuring the sculptures of not just two but several sculptors.

The two are, of course, Elkana Ong’esa and Expedito Mwebe, both of whom were much admired by the late Joseph Murumbi and his wife Sheila whose memorabilia fills most of Nairobi Gallery.

In addition to seeing their artwork inside the gallery, Expedito’s son Michelangelo Mwebe’s wood relief panels are on display rivalling his father’s own panels.

In addition to their panels, father and son have produced miniature artworks such as carefully carved combs and ornamental frames.

Elkana also insisted on not being the only ‘genius’ whose Kisii stone sculptures are showcased in the Nairobi Gallery show.
Having just come from his fourth ‘African Stones Talk’ Sculpture Symposium in Kisii, he took this opportunity to highlight some of the most portable stone sculptures produced by international artists who came to Kenya specifically to attend Elkana’s symposium.

Thanks to Elkana’s efforts (assisted by Murumbi Trust’s Alan Donovan) to highlight the artistry of other African sculptors, the Gallery currently boasts of new monumental works that grace the front entrance of the Gallery as well as its interior.

What makes the Nairobi art scene so vibrant currently is that it’s not just the diversity of media and subject matter but also the fact that both relatively new and well-established artists are on display.

Nairobi Gallery’s appreciation of pioneering artists contrasts with Circle’s showcasing of surprising new or less exposed artists who are also bound to make waves both locally and globally. Some are already doing so to the credit of Kenya.

Finally, last Saturday, Banana Hill Art Gallery quietly opened a new exhibition of two Ugandan artists, Godfrey SSeguijja and Ronald Kerango entitled ‘Beauty in Hope’.