Clear evidence that Nairobi has become a regional hub, not just for economic activities, but also for cultural and artistic events, is being seen this month at two of the newer art institutions in town.
Both Gravitart and the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI) are hosting works by artists from Egypt and Sudan respectively. There is ‘Mirrors of Existence’ by Mostafa Sleem from Cairo, and El Tayeb Dawelbait’s 'Untitled Archive' from Khartoum.
Coincidentally, this is not the first time the two have been mentioned in the same breath. Back in 2019, Veronica Paradinas Duro curated a show at Gravitart with both men’s works featured in an exhibition entitled ‘The Sky inside You’.
And now, she has given Sleem a solo exhibition, which reveals just how far the artist has journeyed aesthetically since his artworks were first shown in Kenya three years ago.
There is a stark contrast between then and now. Sleem’s earlier works come from those pre-Covid days when no one would have guessed how lonely life would become during a lockdown.
In those earlier times, his art had lots of exuberant colour, blended beautifully into a crazy cacophonic blast that seemed to be infused with rich musical accompaniment and sun-lit sound. That exuberance is apparent in works like ‘Flying Melody’ and ‘Finding Hug’.
But then, much of that colour disappears in Sleem’s more recent multi-faced portraits, the ones meant to be ‘mirrors of existence’. Veronica tells the BDLife that his portraits have been inspired by one great work of art, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and one great artist, Picasso.
Mona Lisa’s look has presented itself as an enigma to many who question what is behind her smile. Is it sadness, sweetness, or simply a desire to be done with her sitting ASAP?
Sleem addresses that issue by including more than one expression of his subject’s face on his canvas. Knowing that human beings have a myriad of moods, emotions, and thoughts, he aims for his visages to express as many of those sentiments as possible in one surreal face.
Insisting that his faces are ‘mirrors’ not meant to be limited by gender, race, or age, he tells Veronica that they are meant to reflect the universality and oneness of humanity instead.
Whether that is the way his art is perceived by viewers who come to see it at Gravitart, that will be for Veronica to know.
Personally, it feels like Sleem reduced his focus to singular, isolated souls who like him, were sadly locked down during the pandemic. Hopefully, he will revert back to using colour now that Covid-19 has cooled.
‘Mirrors of Existence’ is a hybrid showcase running until the end of the month.
Meanwhile, NCAI is presenting an almost comprehensive collection of El Tayeb’s works, including everything from an installation he created in Lamu to one he made especially for this show.
It’s got his sketchbooks and drawings as well as lots of the objects that have inspired him to develop along the lines that he has.
The one arena of his creative expression that was not touched in this assemblage of miscellaneous items was his work in textile design, particularly the clothes he’s designed and embellished with woodcut prints for Kiko Romeo. But no matter, except that these further reveal the versatility and experimental magic of the artist.
El Tayeb came to Kenya as part of a tsunami tide of Sudanese artists whose first stop was Paa ya Paa Art Centre.
“I came at the invitation of Elimo Njau and Paa ya Paa,” El Tayeb tells BDLife. He was grateful to get the chance to come. But then, he, like so many penurious young artistic emigrants, didn’t have cash on hand to buy paints and canvas. So what did he do? Like others, he turned to found objects, recycling trash and turning it into treasure.
In his case, his trash was ‘antiqued’ boxes, old wooden containers once used by mainly carpenters. He recycled tin cans too as one will see in this eclectic and fascinating exhibition which shows the many facets of the artist who we have come to associate with one proverbial big-nosed profile.
The profile has grown old and redundant so it’s wonderful to see that El Tayeb has so much more to him. This show reveals how well he can draw for one thing. It also makes one wonder why he’s gotten so lax about experimenting compared to when he was hungry and struggling to find a way to survive in his new environment.