Art

Painted faces that are more than portraits

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Hellmuth Rossler-Musch, founder-curator of Red Hill Gallery with mabati 'tapestry' by Justus Kyalo behind. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • Red Hill Art Gallery’s chief curator and gallery owner Hellmuth Rossler-Musch is not modest to suggest his art space has a lot in common with a museum.
  • What makes a museum different from an art gallery is that the former is for public viewing of art that has no price tag attached, while a gallery is commercial, meaning the art on show is invariably for sale.

Red Hill Art Gallery’s chief curator and gallery owner Hellmuth Rossler-Musch is not modest to suggest his art space has a lot in common with a museum.

What makes a museum different from an art gallery is that the former is for public viewing of art that has no price tag attached, while a gallery is commercial, meaning the art on show is invariably for sale.

“We are not strictly a commercial gallery,” says Hellmuth whose current exhibition, ‘Faces’ has more than half the artworks on display labelled not for sale.

“Only the artworks by Fitsum Berhe, Samuel Githinji, Geoffrey Mukasa, Souad Abdel, and one of the two by Charles Sekano are for sale. The rest is part of our permanent collection,” adds Hellmuth, referring to the vast assemblage of East African art that he with his wife Erica have been actively collecting since the mid-1990s.

A casual viewer might not notice the distinction, since there is hardly a qualitative difference between the two, apart from the fact that many of the collection pieces are slightly older.

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Art work on display at the Faces Exhibition at Redhill Gallery Fitsum Berhe - Prince Alemayehu. PHOTO | POOL

That is true, for instance, of Pilkington Ssengendo’s ‘Young woman in grey’ which the Ugandan artist created in 2001, and one of the untitled paintings by South African artist Charles Sekano which was created around 1985 when the painter-jazz pianist was still living in Kenya.

“We don’t believe in buying art to simply lock it away in a store,” says Erica who was a nurse who spent most of her working life in Africa.

The same is true of Dr Hellmuth who is a trained biochemist. The two met some 30 years back when they were both working in public health in Somalia. They moved to Kenya in the early 2000s.

This show has works by artists from six African countries: Egypt, Kenya, South African, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. And Hellmuth has a story to share about practically every single piece.

For instance, they were in Harare in 2011 and met an 85-year-old artist carrying his heavy black Serpentine bust which Hellmuth was happy to take off his hands. “We carried it home in our hand luggage,” recalled Erica.

Or the sad-faced young Ethiopian Prince Alemayehu, painted by Fitsum. The young man had lived in the 19th Century and was taken to UK by an officer as per the dying wish of the King. The prince whose royal bloodline dated back to Solomon and Sheba was miserable living outside Africa and died young. But he had made a deep impression on Queen Victoria who had him buried on her grounds.

Only female artist

Or the only female artist in the show, Egyptian painter, Souad, who delineates faces in ink atop old maps. The faces have a magical appeal in that each one seems conjured up off the paper terrain and given an oblique facial form.

Souad’s Sudanese spouse, Salah el Mur is also in the show. His faces, presented as a vertical triptych, are quite different from hers. But neither artist disputes the degree to which each one influences the other.

The couple who have exhibited together at Red Hill in the past, are both included in the gallery's permanent collection, unlike the one exquisite painting by the late Ugandan painter Geoffrey Mukasa which is for sale. “We are selling it on behalf of his family,” says Hellmuth who notes the artist’s family lost the artist to cancer in 2009.

One last feature of Red Hill’s ‘Faces’ is the diversity of the media used by the artists as well as the colour schemes and range of emotions expressed in every countenance.

The media assortment ranges from oil on canvas and ink on paper to iron sheet, cardboard, and hessian cloth.