Affordable art fair by three female painters


Esther Makuhi’s Market Day painting at Karen Blixen Museum in Nairobi on February 11, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Standing in the hot equatorial sun with their artworks shaded only by the lush green branches of an avocado tree are three women artists who came to exhibit their works at the Karen Blixen Museum in Nairobi.

“We’ve been exhibiting here every year (apart from the last two when Covid-19 kept us at home) since 2011,” says Caroline Mbirua, one of the trio, including Esther Makuhi and Nayia Sitonik.

Speaking to BDLife, what she also explains is that in previous years, the troika was always exhibited on the veranda of the museum, having maximum visibility. “Often visitors to the Museum would stop first at our exhibition and admire our art,” she adds.

But this year is different. A new rule came into effect just before the pandemic hit. It now restricts artists from displaying their work in the frontal walkways of the Danish writer’s memorial institution.

“A tourist complained that our art was blocking their view of the Museum. They wanted to take photographs,” says Esther.

Their plight is palpable, particularly as they have seen that visitors who come to the museum rarely find their way around the giant avocado tree to look for fine art.

“If they do come to the tree, they are normally looking for curios,” says Mbirua.

“It also gets windy in Karen, making our paintings fall off their easels and [make-shift] stands,” says Mbirua.

“Plus when it rains we have to rush to get all our art to shelter,” adds Sitonik.


Nayia Sttonik’s Ngong Town painting. PHOTO | POOL

Fortunately, all three women have brought both framed and unframed paintings with them, making it easier to transport.

For instance, Esther has brought postcard-sized paintings by several of her best young students who she teaches for free at her Darubini Centre.

“Both my art centre and I have won awards at the [annual] MASK art competition,” she says. Caroline has also won MASK prizes for her teaching of art. “In 2014, I also received the Presidential EBS honour of ‘Elder of the Burning Spear’,” she says. “The same year, Nation Media also awarded me with the ‘One Vibe One Kenya’ prize,” she adds.

Nayia may not have won as many awards as her peers. But she has been commissioned to create numerous graffiti murals in places like the Kenya Revenue Authority and East African Leather, the Afri-Can in Uganda, and several walls in Kigale, Rwanda.

All three women paint various subjects, mainly in figurative styles. Caroline, who studied four years at the Creative Arts Centre, frequently paints in oils using monochromic subjects. My favourite is her delicately-drawn acacia trees which sometimes have a dash of contrasting colour.

Nayia’s most interesting works are architectural, focused on familiar Nairobi haunts like the Railway Museum where she studied for a while with Patrick Makabi at the Dust Depo Studio. Her portraits of peri-urban cityscapes are also interesting.

Esther’s forte is painting peasant women whose manual labor, carrying bags of fresh produce literally on their backs, helps to feed the nation.

All the women have kept their artworks affordable, between Sh5,000 to Sh120,000.