Transitional art goes to the Mall

Lemek Sompoika's untitled painting at The Mall, Westlands, December 17, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Liminal Spaces are defined as ‘ambiguous’ locations, spaces in between, often seen as transitional, open-ended, and undefined.

They are also the name of two European women whose commercial partnership is also a cultural platform where they share news about Nairobi’s thriving arts scene.

“We both have lived in Kenya for several years but always felt there was a gap in information about what’s happening currently on the cultural scene. That’s why we decided to fill the gap by creating ‘The Art Calendar’. It comes out weekly with timely information,” says Christine Hogendoorn who partners with Marine Cavaillon to tour the town regularly, picking up timely cultural tidbits in the process.

Recently, the two took a break from amplifying the activities of others and chose to organise an evening of their own in the basement of The Mall in Westlands.

Entitling their event ‘Identity, Community, and Belonging,’ their show featured artworks by Elias Mung’ora and Lemek Sompoika together with a series of short films generated by the ArtXchange, an experimental project organised by the European Union and involving both European and African artists from all around the region involved in a wide array of artistic practices.

Elias Mung'ora's painting of thieves walking away with mabati in broad daylight at The Mall during the exhibition on December 17, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Ironically, the concept of ‘liminal spaces’ seems applicable not only to the dynamic female duo who are themselves living ‘in between’ Europe and Africa, touching base with both continents, but currently occupying space that seems transitional and experimental.

Both of the Kenyan artists who signed onto their show reflect a bit of liminality in their art as well.

For instance, Lemek is a Maasai by birth, but having grown up in town, he is not fully imbued with his Maasai culture and identity.

His art explores the ambiguity of being either a moran or a modern Western-educated man.

The issue of identity is explored in his art as one can see his transition from figurative to abstract imagery.

The idea of ambiguity also emerges as his work seems to waver between abstract expressionism and the long, angularity of a figure who seems to be leaping for joy like a high-flying Maasai.


Elias Mungora's 4-panelled painting at The Mall, December 17, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

For me, his blending of both styles conveys his most meaningful and evocative art.

The one factor in Lemek’s work that transcends liminality is his use of colour. His splashes of black on white paper are striking.

They have an almost Jackson Pollack feeling to them in that they have a splashy spontaneity to them.

It’s also true when he splashes a dash of navy blue or flaming red onto a few.

Lemek Sompoika with his art. PHOTO | POOL

It’s Elias Mung’ora who has the most liminality in his art. In particular, I’m referring to the works that were hung in the large high-ceiling space devoted exclusively to his paintings and included in his series entitled ‘Of Cows and Land Politics.’

These are works he created during his attendance at an artist’s residency at Tafaria Castle in Laikipia county.

And these are the ones where practically everyone is in transition, be it the cows on one end of his space or the land speculators standing ominously on the edge of his massive mural-like work or the petty thieves walking away in broad daylight with somebody’s large metal (mabati) sheet.

All of these pieces are layered with meaning and depth of feeling, particularly because Mung’ora can identify with people struggling to hold onto their land.

“Land is precious to my people,” the artist tells BDLife as he explains the way history is infused in his art.

It is there in his use of mixed media, from newspapers clipped and used as collages to acrylic paints, pastels, and charcoal.

His most remarkable painting in the liminal show is the four-panelled work which partially alludes to the colonial era when land grabbing took many forms, including land demarcation and disruptive borders that excluded Africans from any equitable deals.

Instead, they found themselves first taxed and economically enslaved as plantation workers on their forefathers’ lands, and finally removed forcibly and then detained, tortured, and brutally murdered.

But today, as the lands for grazing and those for farming are both diminishing due to multiple factors, the land clashes are present-day problems that Mung’ora explores in his painting in a challenging, semi-abstract style.

Elias Mung'ora during his exhibition at The Mall, on December 17, 2022.  PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Finally, even cattle are transitional characters, not only because Mung’ora explains their status has changed from once being symbols of wealth to now being liabilities.

And that is not just because pastoralists and agro-businessmen need more grazing land for their cows. Cattle also emit too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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