Nairobi's rise as visual arts hub

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Boniface Maina's latest work at Red Hill Gallery on March 14, 2024. PHOTO | POOL

This past weekend bore witness to a plethora of paintings, a wide range of both group and solo shows that once again confirmed Nairobi’s status as the hub of contemporary African visual art across East Africa.

Starting just days before the weekend with three solo shows by Wanjohi Maina, Ngugi Waweru, and Adika Austine, the trio opened at Circle Art Gallery and filled both the walls and the walkways with 2D and 3D art.

On Saturday at the Organic Farmers’ Market in Karen, there was a pop-up exhibition titled ‘Luminance’ that featured works by 10 painters, including Anne Mwiti, Mumbi Muturi-Muli, Andrea Bohnstedt, Shabu Mwangi, Michael Musyoka, Boniface Maina, Lemek Sompoika, Jamie Vaulkhard, Jimmy Kitheka, and Zephaniah Lukamba.

Then came the premiering solo exhibition for the newly opened African Arts Trust. Onyis Martin admitted to the BDLife that he felt honoured to be the Trust’s first artist to have a solo show in Africa.

And finally, on Sunday, Red Hill Gallery also had the solo exhibition of Boniface Maina who’d come from Nanyuki where he’d shifted after being one of the three founder-members of Brush Tu Artists Collective.

With his show entitled ‘Delicate Densities’, 'Boni' explores the issue of what it means to be human from an inquisitive African artist’s perspective. It’s a fascinating body of work. “It’s partly autobiographical [and retrospective], partly current,” the artist told the BDLife at the opening.

There were many more arts events happening last weekend, like Martin Musyoka’s Canvas Chronicals Collection in Kitisuru and Flaminia Mantegazza’s exhibition entitled ‘An infinite Expectation of the Dawn’ at Nairobi National Museum. But we couldn’t be everywhere at once. What we could see was how diligent and determined Kenyan artists are to progress and develop their practice artistically.

Boni Maina’s collection at Red Hill effectively illustrates this point. But it also shows the advantage of getting out of the city so that the artist could work quietly to develop his own imaginative and original style of art. Boni takes a unique approach that combines painting and drawing, with carving and printing, bleach and ink, all in a playful interplay of technique and multi-media, paradoxical concepts and irregularly-shaped 3D paintings that explode with fresh new ideas to contemplate.

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Wanjohi Maina's hawker republic at the Circle Art's Trio. PHOTO | POOL

At the Organic Farmers Market, it was also great to see art mixed with organic fresh foods. The only issue I had with 'Luminance' was the blackness of the walls which felt like they contradicted the concept of the show, which was all about light. But by dedicating it to the late, great Yony Waite, we felt grateful to remember the joyful genius of this important Kenyan-American artist. Zihan’s poetry, also dedicated to Yony, gave an added enhancement to a small but significant exhibition

Equally original and also advancing steadily in the development of their art are the trio exhibiting at Circle Art. Wanjohi Maina has been fascinated with hawkers for years, so much so that he named his show after them. He calls it the ‘Hawkers Republic’. Since 2017 he’s been following them with a camera and sketch pad in hand to initially create black and white prints that quickly got colour and size. On the opening night, the five-foot-tall hawkers greeted us as we walked into the gallery. They looked life-like and keen to sell us their wares.

Meanwhile, Ngugi Waweru’s spent-knives art, entitled ‘Mbinguni kume pasuka’ has a powerful message, similar to the Kikuyu proverb Kahio kugi gatemaga o mwene, which translates as ‘A sharp knife cuts its owner’. For Ngugi, this means that in a capitalist system, over-consumption is privileged over taking care of the planet. The knife is the tool symbolising the ability to manufacture quickly to make more profits, but as long as you over-work your knife, you’ll keep sharpening it until it’s finished and you’ve destroyed your planet in the process.

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Alien sculptures by Austin Adika at the Circle Art Gallery on March 14, 2024. PHOTO | POOL

Finally, Austine Adika creates soft-steel metal sculptures as well as 3D tapestries made with burnt bags locally known as Uhuru bags. The burnt bags have a textured effect on the tapestries which do well once Adika lavishly sprinkles tiny soft-steel sculptures on them, all of which the artist cuts and shapes by hand. And of the two large wall hangings that he brought to Circle Art, one is covered in tiny metallic butterflies, the other in delicate flower blossoms.

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