Shy Myrna debuts at the One Off Gallery

Fitsum's Madonna at One Off Gallery in Nairobi on July 30, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

While Myrna Van Der Veen was making her debut at One Off Gallery last weekend, a number of well-known local artists were also being represented during this mixed exhibition entitled ‘Leaves of Life.’

A newcomer to the Nairobi art scene, Myrna has the good fortune to be associated with an outstanding array of artists, including everyone from Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos, Peter Ngugi, Anthony Okello, and Yony Waite to Olivia Pentergast, James Mbuthia, Mark Lecchini, and Ehoodi Kichapi.

The Dutch-Indonesian artist has actually been doing her painting, photography, and sculpture quietly in Kenya for the last seven years. But she says she’s been shy to set foot on the local art scene.

“My background is mainly in sculpture, but there was a lot of photography and fine art training that went with it,” says the soft-spoken artist who has brought only painting and photographs to her ‘premiere’ at One Off.

She has just seven works in the show but what’s intriguing about them is that they’re in dialogue with one another. For instance, she has four photographs in The Loft side of One Off, each looking like abstract art until she explains, “They have all been taken of Lake Magadi from a helicopter flying at various altitudes.”

Myrna's The Beginning painting at One Off Gallery in Nairobi, July 30, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Suddenly, this aerial view of the salt lake is clarified. Those squiggly lines are flocks of flamingos flying over the lake while others are feeding on the algae in it. And the obtuse shapes are parts of the lake that haven’t dried up as well as other snow-white areas which are filled probably with dry salt.

Now the imagery is clear, and one can even see the way her large painted abstract work reflects the mood she says she feels after spending time with the photographs.

“The painting and the photographs are in a conversation with one another,” she says. “The painting, which I call ‘The Beginning’, reflects the feeling I get from my photographs.”

The painting is also filled with rich colours and texture since Myrna loves to mix her own pigments (rather than use store-bought tubes of paint) using everything from sand, leaves, and iron powder to gold leaf, wood fibre, and bronze.

“My parents were both scientists and didn’t really understand my art. But my father was a chemist and a pharmacist who taught me about mixing elements to create specific effects,” she says as a way of explaining one reason why she creates her own original colours from elements that she can blend.

On the Stable side of the gallery, Myrna has two more pieces, one a photograph, the other a painting inspired by her photo of a lone fisherman pulling his fishnet in the sea.

“For me, he represents the labouring people, and I call it ‘The Passion’,” she says, alluding apparently to a correlation between his struggle to carry his net home and the Christ who carried his cross to his crucifixion.

But the conversation her painting has with the photo has more to do with the brilliant turquoise blue of the water than some religious connotation. It’s a work that’s also rich in texture since the pigments used are again blended from miscellaneous elements.

Myrna also speaks openly about having been adopted, and thus, her art always being about identity and the questions that arise from her not knowing her birth parents and why they put her up for adoption. They are questions she has only been able to address through her art.

Meanwhile, if anyone missed the previous exhibitions by Okello and Mbuthia, a portion of both have stayed on in the Gallery. But a lot of new works are also on display.

Olivia has responded to popular demand from those who had wanted to see more of her landscapes which currently cover one whole wall in The Stables. Each is a small gem of Kenya’s natural beauty.

Fitsum’s paintings are also new as Mark Lecchini’s and Ehoodi Kichapi’s. Fitsum rarely paints portraits of women, but one of his works in this show is a ‘Madonna’, which is captivating and most colourfully drawn.

But for me, what was most gratifying were vintage prints by Yony Waite of the wildlife that she lives without at Athi River for many years. That is where she used to see zebra and ostrich on a daily basis.

That’s not so much the case today, but her solo portraits of these elegant creatures drawn in black and white ink and pastels are classics.

Leaves of Life will run up until 20th August.

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