Ardhi Gallery is turning out to be one of the most vibrant and versatile art spaces in Nairobi. They have only been open for the last few months, but like another venue, the French Cultural Centre when it was establishing itself in the city many years ago, Ardhi made its space available to virtually every artist who needed a public venue to get the word out that they are painting, drawing, sculpting, or printmaking. Christine Ogano, the gallery’s owner and chief curator was also new on the job.
“I wanted artists to feel free to come and show their art here. I wasn’t discriminating or rejecting anyone since I wanted [visual] artists to come,” Christine told BDLife shortly before the end of her current exhibition, Art Fusion.
“Our current show, which is all about the fusion of art and fashion has proved to be so popular, we decided to extend it until early January,” Christine added.
Art Fusion is one of a stream of exhibitions that the gallery has had this year. The shows normally fill her vast basement gallery, which is just beneath her husband’s restaurant.
She also just had a brief exhibition of miniature paintings which she hung outside, in the open air.
“The miniatures show was well-received since most of the artists were young and prepared to keep their art affordable,” she said.
Art Fusion is the gallery’s most ambitious Pan-African showcase that Christine has curated thus far. “We have 33 artists represented in the show.
They come from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda as well as from Nigeria and Ghana,” she noted.
It has taken a while to assemble this collection since much of it had to be sent from the artist’s home country, so that has been a major challenge.
Christine now admits it may have been a good thing that she hadn’t known beforehand how complicated the shipping process could be since she might not have embarked on the exhibition in the first place. Or minimised it somewhat.
But her being a banker by day and a curator and gallery owner by night and on weekends has taken its toll. Christine sleeps less these days, but she is happier nonetheless.
“I have always had a passion for art and dreamed of having a gallery of my own. But I hadn’t seen myself owning one. So I’m grateful. My husband has been really encouraging,” she said.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t only visual artists who have been eyeing the Ardhi space and its potential for use as a performing arts venue. Millicent Ogutu, former managing director at Phoenix Players as well as a stage producer, director, and actor saw that potential and recently proved its worth.
Her company, Kibanda Theatre, working with the research team at the Venio Group, just staged an original piece, What we have/What we need downstairs at the gallery, amid colourful paintings and prints in the exhibition. These are by everyone from the Tanzanian artist Masoud Kibwana, the Rwandan Romeo Niyigena, and Ugandan Michael Dungu to the Nigerian Emmanuel Idowu, Ghanaian Oyekale Segun, and a wide assortment of Kenyans, including Tom Mboya, Mbugua Kimani, Jane Gathoni, Maria Kwamboka, and Evans Linyerera, among many others.
The paintings served as a beautiful backdrop to the story, which was based on the research of Dr Njoki Ngumi and Elizabeth Maina related to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
And while the stage was make-shift, it served its purpose. The only shortcoming was the show’s MC and her microphone which was quite unnecessary. What worked the best was when Arthur Sanye came on ‘stage’ without using a mic and his story was clear, his power of projection ensured his voice was crystal clear.
Lorna Lemi also didn’t use a microphone, although perhaps she should’ve since her sensitive portrayal of one woman’s feelings came across as a whisper. One had to be a lip reader to know what she had to say.
Millicent’s production was staged in the round, in one remote and intimate corner of the gallery.
Designed as a series of monologues and based on interviews with women from West and East Africa, the other two actors, Fulky Agnes and Hannah Wangare also told stories about women’s relationships that touched our hearts.
But one couldn’t leave the performance without making a quick dash around Art Fusion, an exhibition that’s bound to captivate someone in a corner where they will find an artist’s work that they have never seen before.