Tejal Patel was a mathematician, mechanical engineer, interior designer, and teacher before she came to Kenya and finally had a chance to become the ‘self-taught’ artist she had always wanted to be.
“My father wouldn’t hear of my becoming an artist,” Tejal tells the BD Life. “He finally let me study interior design, but it wasn’t until I came here to be married that I was finally able to pursue my passion for art,” she adds.
Admitting she had one art teacher in Class 8 in India who introduced her to painting in oils, she has since learned to love working with acrylics and watercolours, which are the majority of works featured at Chez Mahmud in her first solo exhibition.
Ironically, Tejal cannot escape her scientific background, given the 30 super-realistic paintings are drawn and painted with so much precision, delicacy and sensitivity that one feels they could have been commissioned by some high-quality bird guidebook. But they weren’t.
The decorative nature of her paintings compels one to ask the age-old question: are you creating art for art’s sake, or art with a vision and purpose beyond its merely being beautiful?
The beauty of her watercolours is probably why her paintings were welcomed for an exhibition. “We have exhibited a different artist every month since we opened [in late 2022], so we were happy to meet Tejal and support her art with this exhibition,” Zahra Peera, Chez Mahmud’s owner tells the BD Life.
Explaining that Chez Mahmud is not simply an art gallery, she describes her space as a ‘Wellness Centre’ as well as an art gallery.
“Our vision was to realise the connection between art and wellness,” says Zahra, who arrived in Nairobi in February 2020, just before the Covid-19 lockdown. “In a way, Chez Mahmud was born during the pandemic since we were also new to Kenya and feeling our way,” she adds.
Born in Dar es Salaam just as her father ‘Mahmud’ (short for Mohamed) was wrapping up his Makonde Carvers workshop and curio business, Zahra was whisked away from East Africa to France when she was just two months old.
“My father had the workshop in our backyard where he’d employed 30 Makonde carvers to create sculptures which he traded in Germany, France, and the UK,” she recalls.
In so doing, he was marketing the Makonde brand name when no one in Europe had ever heard of them before.
But her father felt compelled to shut his business because everything was being nationalised and many in the private sector were leaving the country at the time.
She compares that period with what happened to Asians in Uganda, although there was no comparison between Idi Amin and Julius Nyerere. Asians were not threatened in the same way in Tanzania.
However, people were fearful of losing everything they’d worked hard to build in business, so her family quickly left once they realised the direction the country was headed.
In any case, Zahra grew up and went to school in Paris. She studied hospitality at university and has been working in management for an international hotel firm, based in Johannesburg for the past 13 years.
“But I decided I’d prefer working for myself to assist others rather than merely work for the company and its shareholders,” she says.
That is when her interest in wellness developed as a business model, including both wellness and fine art at Chez Mahmud.
“We run workshops in yoga and meditation. And as we’re concerned with issues of mental health, we work with a psychotherapist, a family facilitator [or counsellor], and two sound therapists,” Zahra explains.
After that, she invites me to experience something she enthusiastically calls ‘Sound therapy.’
Then she calls in Reza Naheed who works with the combination of sound, energy, and healing. She describes her gift to me as ‘a sample’, but an hour and a half later, I feel I have been deeply moved by a series of resonating sounds meant to literally touch and heal the heart, soul, and mind. That’s the idea anyway, and it seems to work.
Reza collaborates with his partner to work with an assortment of percussive instruments, everything from gongs, glass bowels, and cymbals to drums, cowbells, and shakers of all kinds.
So, whether you go to Chez Mahmud to see the art of Tejal or to meet Zahra of the Wellness Centre, it’s worth a trip to Nairobi's Kitisuru to see and feel what’s happening there.