Life Size: Elungat makes a grand return

Peter Elungat's Mother and Child painting at Ardhi Gallery during the Life Size exhibition on May 4, 2024.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

Being the baby in his father’s first litter of children, Peter Elungat first learned to paint by copying the artworks of his oldest brother Hosea who was at least a decade older than he was. He was barely out of nappies at the time.

“Art was fascinating to me from an early age,” he tells the BDLife. “I used to love reading the Friday Daily Nation (which my father brought home regularly) since it used to showcase great artists like Mary Collis and Jak Katarikawe. I also found a calendar that had their artworks in it, and I would copy their paintings,” he says shamelessly.

He didn’t have funds to attend art school, so he literally learned his painterly skills by emulating those artists he admired.

He eventually made it to the Kuona Trust which had a library where he had his first encounters with artists like Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio whose hot-blooded passion so apparent in his art particularly impressed Elungat. Kuona is also where he met Kenyan artists like Patrick Mukabi, Richard Kimathi, Jimnah Kimani, Michael Soi, Kyalo Justus, Maggie Otieno, and many others.

Kuona is also where he met Carol Lees of One Off Gallery who helped him have his first solo show at Yaya Centre in 2001. His close association with Carol and One Off, which morphed for 10 years into RaMoMa, and back into One Off lasted until 2017 when he chose to disconnect from the gallery system altogether and strike out on his own.

It was a radical move on Elungat’s part, but he’d felt a strong impulse to assert his artistic freedom and independence. Some people felt he was ungrateful for all that One Off had done for him. But others appreciated his joining the ranks of a myriad of struggling Kenyan artists. Either way, Elungat felt he was being true to himself.

Peter Elungat's 'Echos of the Spirit' painting at Ardhi Gallery during the Life Size exhibition on May 4, 2024. 

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

“There was a proverb posted on one wall at Kuona, which I’ll never forget. It read (in translation) ‘Be committed to the purpose that brought you here.’ His purpose, he says, is to allow the free flow of ideas to pass through him onto canvas.

It sounds slightly esoteric, but Elungat admits he doesn’t see himself so much as a creator as a messenger.

In his current exhibition at Ardhi Gallery entitled Life Size, one can see that soulful sense expressed in works like ‘Echoes of the Spirit, Sound of and Angel, and The Biography of a Spirit. And even in the one sculpture he has in the show, it’s entitled Soul of a Tree. Not that he aspires to express himself as a sculptor. This five-foot by five-foot abstract work made with ‘gifted’ wire, acacia tree branches, and baby bamboo polls evolved by serendipitous means.

Now that he has shifted his studio to his home in Kitengela, he has a garden where he’s planted flowers and other decorative plants, lots of leafy vegetables and spices, but also acacia trees and bamboo. Having pruned one acacia, he saw its branches being the frame of the work. It was like the same process in which he paints, which is gradually, layer by layer.

Peter Elungat's Sound of an Ange painting at Ardhi Gallery during the Life Size exhibition on May 4, 2024.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

That’s how the bamboo got into the act and the wire gifted to him by a neighbour. Today it stands at the entrance of the exhibition which includes two women artists, Olga Tapiola and Lily D’Olce whose works occupy a whole other wing of this vast gallery.

All of the artist’s works in this show, apart from three which share a dark chiaroscuro style and are practically half the size of a painting that feels quite alien to all the rest of his works, except that Elungat’s drawings are beautiful.

Yet the show as a whole reflects a tremendous diversity in its subject matter, while all are painted in oil on canvas and all have never been shown in public before.

The exhibition itself happened by serendipitous means. Both Elungat and Christine Oguna, the co-owner of Ardhi Gallery happened to be visiting the Mukuru Artists Collective on the same day.

Peter Elungat's In the Garden painting at Ardhi Gallery during the Life Size exhibition on May 4, 2024.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

Elungat had already begun having artists working in residence with him at his studio in Kitengela. And Christine had planned on having an all-women’s exhibition but postponed it temporarily, but some of the young women who’d planned to be in it, could be good candidates for one of Elungat’s artists residencies.

So they combined forces: she directed four young women to apply to go to Kitengela, and he agreed. Their residency is just ending now, and he’s got his exhibition. So all are happy with their collaboration.

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