Chelenge van Rampelburg goes on artistic retrospective journey

Chelenge van Rampelburg

Chelenge van Rampelburg with her first sculpture ‘Mother and Child’, at NCAI on November 12, 2023.

 Chelenge van Rampelenge

Etechings on wood by Chelenge van Rampelburg at NCAI , on November 12, 2023.

Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI) has again curated a fabulous retrospective exhibition of one of the country’s most illustrious female artists, Chelenge van Rampelenge.

She often describes herself as self-taught, but I am more inclined to describe her as a Renaissance woman. She is someone, who like Michaelangelo left formal schooling early on, but who went ahead to make many artistic breakthroughs fueled by her immense energy, curiosity, and determination to pursue a career as an artist.

“Before I knew what an artist was, I knew I was different,” Chelenge told the BDLife just days after her solo exhibition “The Long Way Home” opened at NCAI.

“I also knew that my father meant no harm when I heard him tell my mother I should have been born a boy,” she added, referring to his intuitive sense that her difference was an artistic strength more often associated with men than women.

“But I was always hanging out with the boys up until I was 14,” she noted.

From an early age, she was also spending lots of time with her father, a weekend furniture maker. “From age five, I was playing with wood chips he used to leave as he carved. I also used to play with his hammers and chisels,” she said, never imagining at the time that those memorable moments with her father foreshadowed a blossoming career as a sculptor and printmaker.

Chelenge painting

Early painting 'Happy with music by Chelenge van Rampelburg at NCAI, November 12, 2023.

Chelenge’s other source of inspiration was her grandmother, a woman who used beads to decorate calabashes and make colourful jewellery. She was also a fascinating storyteller whose stories Chelenge says continue to serve as the subjects of many of the paintings and sculptures. As you enter the first room of her exhibition, you will see some of her earliest paintings and the first sculpture she created, that of her mother and herself as a child.

What the exhibition does not include is any of the jewellery that Chelenge made, inspired by the beadwork of her grandmother.

“After I left school, I had to earn a living and jewellery is what earned me my first paycheck,” Chelenge said. “I had gone to African Heritage Gallery and [Alan Donovan’s assistant] saw the beaded jewellery I was wearing and asked if I could make her a bracelet like mine. When I brought it to her the next week, she handed me a cheque which I hadn’t expected. But after that, I started selling my jewellery at the Gallery as well as at the Maasai Market.

Soon after that, her husband Marc discovered Chelenge had been drawing and painting in secret. He quickly alerted his friend, Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu who became another source of inspiration, encouraging her to come out and feel free to express herself more fully.

But the sculpture came by another means. She had an avocado tree, that somehow had split so that half of it was dying.

“I was concerned the dying branches might fall and do damage to our roof, so I called people to chop half of the tree down. It was from that tree that I saw the sculptures I was meant to create,” she said, speaking like a visionary.

It was from then on that Chelenge picked up the skills she’d begun to develop as a child, working with a hammer and chisel, mallot and nails. Increasingly, her attention was given to working with woods, including the avocado as well as the jacaranda, ebony, and indigenous mahogany.

In her retrospective show, one will see no less than 17 of her sculptures, one of the most spectacular of which was shipped from Japan just to be part of the exhibition. But then, there are still more sculptures at her home which is literally in the bush at Kitengela.

“I didn’t want the show to feel cluttered with too many sculptures,” said Chelenge who also included her etchings and woodcut prints as important elements of the retrospective.

She invited us to come visit her at her home where I had come before and drank goat’s milk for the first time.

“I won’t be able to serve you that goat’s milk now since a leopard came and ate the goat,” she casually noted.

 But her comment reflects just how fearless Chelenge is.  “I love my home,” she said, noting the title of her retrospective, The Long Way Home, is more than a metaphor. It’s also a specific place.  “This exhibition is also like coming home for me. It’s a wonderful experience and I’m grateful.”

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