Paintings tell tales in all styles


The slant of thirsting mouths 2022 by Sujay Shah on display at the Circle Art Gallery on May 24, 2022. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Don Handah has become a first-class curator. Dipping into the storeroom at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi where he works as the gallery manager, he pulled out a wonderful variety of regional artists whose newest works are in a group exhibition.

What is now being shown at Circle Art, through May 31, is a diverse collection of paintings, drawings, monoprints, and wall (and ceiling) hangings from 11 artists. They are mainly by Kenyan artists, but also ones from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Uganda.

They include Gor Soudan, Jonathan Fraser, Maliza Kiasuwa, Tiemar Tegene, Beatrice Wanjiku, Geoffrey Mukasa, Sujay Shah, Nahim Teklehiamanot, Wanyu Brush, Salah Elmur, and Tahir Karmali.

The show did not happen overnight.

“We had to contact the artists and ask if they could send us several of their latest works,” Don told BDLife shortly after the show opened on May 11.

Soon thereafter, the artworks started streaming in, coming from Naivasha, Siaya, Banana Hill, and Ngong as well as Addis Ababa, Cairo, and New York.

It took time, but the outcome is fascinating. The show, entitled ‘Fictions’, is artistically engaging, upbeat, eclectic, and yet, coherent and intriguing.

“It’s titled ‘Fictions’ because it’s like the literary art form that tells stories. Only now, its paintings doing the storytelling,” Don said.

Unfortunately, not all the artists are around to give the backstories of their work. Like the Eritrean Tiemar Tegene who is based in Addis. His painting, entitled “Muddy Waters’ features a river filled with floating blue-black skulls. The river could be anywhere in Africa where we have seen war crimes.

At the same time, parts of ‘Fictions’ are simply fun, like the paintings of Sujay. Both his ‘Bathtub’ piece and ‘Still Life…Denial’ brighten up the walls on which they are hung. And as for ‘Still life..’, it amplifies the joy of colour and a surreal style of fun in an entire room.

Don had chosen to hang several black and white works to the left and right of Sujay’s. His painting colourfully contrasts the drawings by Gor and Karmali, and Malisa’s wall-hangings which are also mainly black and white but equally graced with hints of colour.

None of these distract from the room’s main attraction, namely Sujah’s yellow and pink zebra skin on which sit a yellow table and red birdcage. There are other odds and ends painted on the canvas. But on the whole, his surrealist style seems to be a parody of the classical concept of still life.

Other upbeat arrangements by Don include his juxtapositions, like placing Wanyu’s two pieces next to one by Jonathan, Tiemar’s colored monoprints portraits complimenting Salah’s contrasting perspective on portraiture.

Then there is the dark (both visually and psychologically) piece by Beatrice which feels uplifted by the ceiling-hanging of Malisa’s green and yellow giant paper beads which hang just next to Beatrice’s work.

The only works in the show that are not new are by Wanyu. These are two of the finest by one of Kenya’s early visual artists. The two came to the gallery through a collaborative arrangement between Banana Hill Gallery and Circle Art.

They are the first two small gems that meet your gaze as you enter the gallery, contrasting well with one of Jonathan’s newest works. As he is one of the younger artists in the show and Wanyu the oldest, what is intriguing is they both use a broad range of colours in their art.

-Fraser’s works are filled with mixed media, including charcoal, pastels, spray paint, and acrylics. His style is experimental, one that is evolving in abstract and exciting ways. One other of his pieces has an intuitive connection to its neighbour, the shining black skulls by Tegene.

Among other Kenyan artists, Beatrice, Maliza, Gor, and Sujay stand out as stunners, offering clear-cut views of the wide range of styles developing among Kenyans: an emphasis on the organic in drawings by both Gor and Karmali (who is now based in New York) as well as by Maliza whose wall hangings are elegant tapestries of natural fibers stitched together by the Naivasha-based woman.

One of only three women in the show, Addis-based Tiemar is among the younger generation of artists being shown by Circle Art. The other is Beatrice who is among the earliest Kenyan women to emerge on the scene.

Finally, the other elder artist in the show is the wise and wonderful Elmur. But who is the most entertaining artist, for me, is surrealist Sujay.