Epiphany: Three prophetic artists 'preach' at Circle Art

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Three of my favourite Kenyan artists are currently exhibiting their work as from last Wednesday night when each had his own solo opening at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi.

Circle’s new space on Nairobi's Riara Road is much larger than that the gallery formerly had in Lavington, so they could apportion all three artists a specific space and find only their work in that space.

“Each artist also has his title for his art,” says the founder-curator of Circle Art, Danda Jamoljmek.

For instance, Wanjohi’ Maina's “Hawkers Republic’, while Ngugi Waweru’s is ‘Mbinguni kume Pasuka’ in Kikuyu, and Austine Adika’s is “R’N’B’.

Wanjohi’s hawkers hit you literally as you arrive at the front door. Just like the real-life hawkers peddling their wares in the city streets between the cars, so too Wanjohi’s life-sized street vendors also occupy the pedestrian walkways in the gallery.

His colourful characters also fill his portion of ‘his’ gallery wall up to the point where his realistic men and women are replaced by alien creatures, a few of which could also pass for disfigured humans.

But that’s not the point of Adika’s recycled metallic art. It’s all about the creative process and expressing himself in original and engaging new ways.

Adika, who was born in Siaya but raised in Mombasa, doesn’t mind admitting he has been making metallic things like toy cars, matatus, and buses out of recycled Kimbo and Blueband tins from the age of 10.

Like most children at that age, he tell the BD Life, the idea was making toys using scissors and knives to cut and create was common among his childhood friends. Then in primary and secondary school, he studied Art as a proper subject. So, at the University of Nairobi, he studied literature and political science instead.

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Austine Adika's tapestry made with burnt 'Uhuru' bags covered in tiny hand-cut metallic flowers, birds, and other creatures at Circle Art, March 13, 2024. PHOTO | POOL

Now that he’s back into art, he’s into recycling the so-called ‘Uhuru bags’ (grocery store bags) and making them into colourful tapestries that he first burns, and then covers with tiny metallic butterflies or flowers.

Wanjohi also creates using recycled bags, only that his bags are carried by hawker women who come into the streets to appeal to captive audiences in their cars. Previously, they might have preferred to sit on the sidewalk and sell. But now such an option is long gone since all the sidewalk spots are fully occupied by hawkers who can’t be persuaded to give up their seats. They’re valuable property despite the hawkers not having a legal claim to the land they say is ‘theirs’.

In any case, the hawkers we meet at Circle Art, especially those we encounter as we enter the gallery resemble real human beings. They’ve got faces we are sure we have seen, either on Moi Avenue or Tom Mboya Street. Wanjohi’s cut-outs have an uncanny resemblance to real people who he admits he first photographs.

But then, those images are transferred onto paper or canvas, then painted, and resized depending on where he plans his people will go, either onto boards suitable for accommodating life-sized cut-out art, or smaller formats that will best be seen on ‘his’ wall consecutively, which is how most his hawkers are seen at Circle Art.

If Wanjohi’s art is an implicit statement about unemployment and the desperation many Kenyans feel as they struggle to find ways to survive, Adika’s art also contains several social comments, one about the democratic impact of recycled art; another, about ‘aliens’ and the discomfort some people feel about those who are different and often get stigmatised because they are misunderstood. Adika’s art seems to be a proud artistic advocacy on their behalf.

In contrast, Ngugi Waweru’s art is the most politically explicit of the three. Like Adika and Wanjohi, he also works with recycled materials, mainly ‘spent’ knives that he has been collecting quietly while Covid-19 was raging throughout the country.

It was a time when the butchers and mama mboga’s were quick to make a few extra shillings selling their over-sharpened or ‘spent’ knives.

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His works are also grounded in the Kikuyu proverb that translates “the system is broken.” It is meant to serve as a warning and also a rebuke against those who didn’t listen years ago when humanity was told our obsession with consumption would lead to our extinction if we didn’t change our ways. But we did not. That is why we’ve got multiple global crises that are too late to reverse.

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