Karen’s pop-up art exhibition


Patrick Mukabi with his painting at the indoor-outdoor exhibition in Karen, Nairobi. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

What do Kioko Mwitiki, Patrick Mukabi, and Geraldine Robarts have in common? A whole lot, as it turns out. All three are artists, one a sculptor, the other two painters.

All three are also teachers and mentors who are always entertaining apprentices or artists attached from art schools who want more exposure to how the real art world works on the ground.

And all three shared the same vast indoor-outdoor exhibition space last weekend at the Karen home of Geraldine. Plus, the atmosphere was enriched by the gentle musical sounds of the singer, nyatiti-player Judith Bwire and her band.

“I taught Kioko at Kenyatta University many years ago,” recalls Geraldine. “And Patrick has been my friend for ever so long,” she adds, alluding to the fact that both artists picked up on her plan to have a show where all three could both exhibit and teach at the same time.

Happy to have her house and grounds opened up for the exhibition, Geraldine hoped her garden would be seen as part of the exhibition.

“My second love after painting is gardening,” says the art lecturer who came to Kenya to teach at KU in the 1970s after working at Makerere for several years. “Every shrub you see here was planted with these hands,” she tells BDLife as we gaze out from her gazebo into an abundantly green yard filled with scrap-metal sculptures made by Kioko.

“Patrick has all his paintings in Geraldine’s second gallery [which is down towards the Kibo Lane entrance],” adds Mike Fairhead, Geraldine’s spouse and main Mr Fix-it for everything that needs mending around the house and grounds. That is where Patrick spends a big portion of the weekend, teaching children to paint and draw using charcoal and oil pastels.

“I brought a lot of my newest works,” Patrick tells BDLife as he shows me how he is still painting his market mamas selling fruits and vegetables. Only now he’s chosen to select various kitenge and kikoi to fix atop his stretched canvas frames, and then sketch and paint them using those patterns as artistic background.

“I’ve also found local companies like Rivertex are printing [floral and animal skin] patterns on canvas that I’m stretching and painting,” Patrick adds. The artistic effects of his new initiatives are beautiful since the prints remain as backdrops but they enhance his use of color, shape, and style.

Meanwhile, Kioko admits he couldn’t easily do training of young sculptors during the weekend since his work requires lots of space. “That’s also why I had to move out of town to Magadi where I have a big workshop and nobody complains about the noise that we make, banging and welding our steel scraps,” Kioko tells BDLife.

He also needs lots of space in light of the types of commissions he continues to receive. “We recently were asked to create a herd of [life-size] elephants to be part of East African Breweries’ Seventieth anniversary of Tusker Lager,” Kioko says, recalling that he was given two-weeks-notice to start and complete the job.

It required his working night and day with 15 of his most advanced apprentices. Together they created five scrap-metal elephants which were 13 feet tall. “After that, EABL donated the five to the Kenya Wildlife Service for their permanent collection,” Kioko says.

Adding that he also runs day-long workshops which are increasingly attended by young women, Kioko says the trend of women in their twenties learning to weld is something he’s happy to see.

Meanwhile, Geraldine plays hostess to a stream of visitors whom she welcomes into both her gallery and her home. “Until I built the gallery, my living room was my ‘gallery’,” she explains.

One of her latest pieces is a glowing red, orange, gold, and ochre-colored baobab that hangs in the living room above one of her large Chinese chests. Others, in similar hues, are in the first gallery that she built three years ago.

Seated with the artist in that gallery, Geraldine says, “I’m grateful to the other gallerists who chose not to exhibit my work. They spurred me on to build a gallery of my own where I can invite other artists to exhibit here as well.”

But having two galleries and two art studios (one where she works on her extra-large canvases) still isn’t sufficient to reveal all the artwork that Geraldine has conceived in the last two years alone. That’s because she paints at the same rate as other people breathe. Painting is her passion; it’s also her life.