A fortnight of best East African art

Ancent Soi's painting, The last supper. PHOTO | POOL

All the pent-up creative energy that couldn’t be expressed during the Covid-19 pandemic came bursting out this past fortnight all over Nairobi.

Starting with the Garden Party exhibition in Karen of works by familiar Kenyan artists, curated by Ndwiga William of The Little Gallery, we went straight to the Preview showcase of the annual Art Auction East Africa at Circle Art Gallery. That’s where Danda Jaroljmek has curated another fabulous assemblage of artworks from a wide range of regional painters, including many never seen before in Kenya. The preview is open until the day of the auction, November 8. It will be a hybrid affair with bidding coming in locally and virtually from all over the world.

Then the following day came the launch of ‘Mwili, Mkono, na Roho: the Archives’ at the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute which was curated online by NCAI’s founding father, the acclaimed Kenyan-British artist Michael Armitage.

Michael was out of the country when the exhibition opened. But several of the nine artists represented in the show came from far and wide to attend. They included Elimo Njau who at 90 came from Paa ya Paa to attend his honouring, Chelenge van Rampelberg who arrived from a distant corner of Kitengela, Sane and Eunice Wadu who jetted in from Naivasha, Theresa Musoke who reached Nairobi from Kampala, and Meek Gichugu who flew in from Paris to be among those who appreciate his surrealistic style of painting. The other four have sadly passed on but not without having made an enduring impact on Armitage whose memory is the unifying force of the show.

Among those who influenced Michael years before he made a name for himself and his art, he was touched by the art of the Ugandan artist Jak Katarikawe who has the most paintings displayed in the show. So did John Njenga and Asaph Ng’ethe Macau who are both represented in this exhibition.

One of the few art institutions where art is not for sale, NCAI is Armitage’s vision and project to create a place of permanency and esteem for Kenyan and East African art generally. And given the government hasn’t taken heed the artists’ request for a National Art Gallery comparable to what exists in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, UK and USA, NCAI may serve as an effective stand-in for a time. In any case, Armitage doesn’t seem concerned about gaining government support for NCAI. He has his own vision of creating an archive that embraces all the artistic influences affecting Kenya’s cultural history.

The following evening saw the opening of the annual Kenya Museum Society’s (KMS) Affordable Art Fair that ran through the weekend. The KMS event is always a popular showcasing of mainly newcomers’ artworks. This year over 600 works by nearly 350 artists were on display in the Courtyard of Nairobi National Museum, “more than twice as many as we displayed a year ago,” recalls Dr Marla Stone who has been the backbone of the fair for many years.

“The artwork also seems to improve every year,” Lydia Galavu, curator of NNM’s Creativity gallery tells BDLife. “And this year we saw a serious improvement in the quality of art brought in for us to select from,” Galavu added.

The only problem with the KMS show was it coincides with another opening, this one a solo exhibition at the Tribal Gallery of works by Onyis Martin whose art is a perfect illustration what a combination of humility, generosity, and talent can do for an artist. It’s empowered him to grow and evolve, exhibiting globally in the process.

Then came Saturday with a slew of artistic activities. There were several more solo exhibitions, another garden party showcase, plus one virtual art exhibition opening online to raise funds to “end polio for good,” and finally, news of the revival of the Kenya Arts Diary for 2023, with its launch coming by mid-November.

The first solo opening last weekend was for the Paris-based Meek Gichugu who is originally another Ngecha artist (like Sane Wadu, Wanyu Brush, and even Sebastian Kiarie). His show opened closer to home at Banana Hill Gallery. Then at One Off Gallery, it was new paintings entitled ‘Outdoor Activities’ by Richard Kimathi that constituted the first solo show in The Stables. The second, by Francis Simpson is entitled ‘Survival in a harsh environment,’ mounted in The Loft at One Off.

Finally, Azza Satti had a closing Garden party marking the final day of her displaying works by Sudanese painters in her Apartment all month.

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