The current exhibition at the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI) is exceptional, possibly their best show since Michael Armitage, our acclaimed Anglo-Kenyan artist, opened its door in 2022.
Yet for some, it might not be immediately apparent why Don Handa entitled the exhibition ‘Common Ground’ or why he curated a show that includes these four artists; Peterson Kamwathi, Paul Njihia, Elias Mung’ora, and Morris Foit. After all, three of the four are painters.
Peterson’s contribution is primarily in charcoal and cut-outs, while Njihia and Mung’ora are primarily painters working with acrylics.
But again, Mung’ora also paints using mixed media, including mabati (corrugated iron) and photo-transfer, thus creating a more surrealist effect in contrast to Njihia’s figurative works.
And Morris Foit is a sculptor who, like the other three, has been given a whole room to show the five wooden sculptures that now belong in NCAI’s permanent collection.
“We are buying art since we are building a permanent collection so that works by our best artists do not all get taken abroad, and then we’d have nothing to show for our East African contemporary art,” Handa tells the BDLife.
The NCAI curator is pointing out a genuine problem since international interest in Kenyan and East African art generally is growing rapidly, particularly since the pandemic period inadvertently gave people time to browse the internet and discover our art for themselves.
Meanwhile, a younger generation of gifted Kenyan artists has taken to displaying their art online, particularly on Instagram.
It is still considered prestigious for an artist to be invited to display his or her work in galleries, which also seem to be sprouting up everywhere.
This is a positive sign although it is often that the newer galleries don’t necessarily know the difference between fine art and mediocre work.
Back to the issue of what is the ‘Common Ground’ of the new NCAI exhibition. Handa clarified that point last weekend during NCAI’s public ‘Walk Around’ exhibition, and he gave a curatorial talk.
What he made clear is that all the art is associated literally with the ground or with land and land-related issues. Land and community are also concerns of the four.
Starting with Morris Foit’s gigantic tree stump given to him by Michael Armitage who told Morris to do with it as he liked.
So, he carved out an entire community grounded in that huge stump. It’s miraculous what Morris created. He carved out a family, a musician, a priest praying, men drinking together, a drunkard, and even a gorilla got etched deeply into that stump.
And included in its trade to NCAI were four more totems that surround this unique sculpture, as if they’re watching over the stump.
Kamwathi’s 29 charcoal cut-outs that cover two walls at NCAI’s spacious gallery are also knock-out amazing. The 29 have their backs to you, mostly raised arms, holding up signs in protest of what we don’t know.
But we applaud them as we live in a wacky world that requires people to stand up (as they all are) and refuses to accept the disarray caused by man-made disasters, policed by armed men seen in his other paintings.
Njihia’s congregations, mostly of school children, all dressed up in colourful school uniforms may be regimented according to institutional rules.
But they are painted in a charming realism that carries over to senior school youth in their dressy ties and jackets repeating the same theme. All are grounded in communities of children fulfilling parents’ aspirations.
There is just one perplexing painting in which a headmaster or politician is drawn as if he overlays the other characters.
He’s addressing exactly who, one cannot tell. But that layer of black lines initially looks abstract and alien from Njihia’s other works.
Their latent significance leaves interpretation to the viewer as do all of these evocative works.
Mun’gora has only two pieces in this iconic show of contemporary Kenyan art. Nonetheless, his concern for the land and its ownership is implicit in both paintings.
Both stamped with time and history, the mabati portrait of a wall suggests deterioration in post-colonial times while the other semi-abstract piece is steeped in symbols that echo colonial days when ex-patriots claimed ownership of African lands.
Their lingering presence is seen in the group of security men hired in real time to guard the ground they still believe is best left to them.
That is where Kamwathi’s protestors come in to insist this is not the case. It belongs to Foit’s people and Njihia’s children of tomorrow.