Art

A collector of East African art

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Hellmuth Rossler, an art collector. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • As a trained biochemist and pharmacist, Hellmuth Rossler had lived and worked all over Africa in the health care sector for more than 35 years.
  • Hellmuth got his start buying and collecting East African art on Nairobi’s Standard Street at both Watatu and Sarang galleries.
  • But as much as he appreciates the Kampala-based Abushariaa, the artist is not in Red Hill’s current group exhibition.

As a trained biochemist and pharmacist, Hellmuth Rossler had lived and worked all over Africa in the health care sector for more than 35 years. But he did not become a serious collector of contemporary African art until the mid-1990s.

“I’d collected a bit of local art as a youth in Germany, but I’d never thought of [East African] art as anything other than souvenir curios,” Hellmuth tells BDLife.

“I didn’t know that such a thing as contemporary African art existed in Kenya until I was shown the works of amazing young artists like Meek Gichugu, Sane Wadu and others,” he adds.

“It was like a revelation to him,” says his Dutch wife Erica who shares her husband’s passion for African art.

Then he started noticing the art of everyone from Jak Katarikawe, Joel Oswaggo, and Wanyu Brush to Ancent Soi, Zach Mbuno, and others.

Hellmuth got his start buying and collecting East African art on Nairobi’s Standard Street at both Watatu and Sarang galleries.

One young Sudanese artist whose works he especially liked was Ahmed Abushariaa, who at the time was working as an artist-in-residence at Paa ya Paa Art Centre with Elimo Njau.

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Justus Kyalo's painting, one of Hellmuth Rossler's art collections. PHOTO | POOL

The recent graduate of Sudan University’s College of Fine and Applied Art, Abushariaa had only arrived in Nairobi in 1996.

But he placed a lot of his art at Sarang where Hellmuth bought much of it.

Having just recently done an inventory of the artworks, including both paintings and sculptures, in his collection, Hellmuth easily identified Abushariaa as the most well-represented artist in his treasure trove of works.

He owns around 60 of his paintings. And while the works themselves are beautiful, Hellmuth also finds it fascinating to see the way Abushariaa’s art has evolved and developed over time.

But as much as he appreciates the Kampala-based Abushariaa, the artist is not in Red Hill’s current group exhibition entitled ‘A Glimpse of a Collection of Contemporary East African Art.”

The show is definitely only a glimpse of Hellmuth’s vast collection (which includes over 500 works). It only features eight artists out of the scores whose works he has assembled over the years. The eight are Peterson Kamwathi, Shabu Mwangi, Justus Kyalo, Beatrice Wanjiku, Michael Musyoka, Dennis Muraguri, the Zambian sculptor Thom Phiri, and another Sudanese artist, Salah Elmur.

But even if there are only eight, and even if none are for sale, it is still worth seeing these few since they are among East Africa’s leading professional artists.

When Hellmuth began collecting, he was still working in health care, and he was not yet living in Kenya. That would only come in 2010 after he and Erica retired, to start up their own Art Gallery.

“So initially, we sent all the art back to Germany. But once we moved to Kenya, we brought most of it back to Red Hill,” says Hellmuth.

In part, he says this is because he feels it’s important for Kenyan art to remain in the country.

Explaining that his primary incentive for collecting East African art in the first place was his passion for it, Hellmuth insists he never intended to buy art for its investment potential or resale value, although he knows many people see it as in that light.

He is fully aware his collection is worth far more today than what he originally paid it. But for him, it’s the passion for the paintings that gives him the greatest pleasure.

“I think I will be periodically giving more ‘glimpses’ of my collection in the future, although I don’t intend to sell any of it,” he says, noting that his gallery is not a full-time commercial venture.

“An exhibition [like Glimpses] is more about raising people’s awareness of the reality and beauty of contemporary East African art,” Hellmuth says.