- Mainly in the 20s, they are creating works that are refined, polished, and purposeful, and at least three of the 18 artists have already featured in previous group exhibitions.
In curating ‘Various Small Fires’ for Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi, Don Handa has defined a historic moment for a gallery that already has a tradition of bringing unknown artists from around the region to feature on its pearly white walls and floors.
Don has brought Kenyan, Eritrean and Tanzanian artists to our attention in the gallery’s current show. But where he has made something of a breakthrough is his choice to select young, relatively unknown artists, the kind who once might have been called ‘up-and-coming.’
Mainly in the 20s, they are creating works that are refined, polished, and purposeful, and at least three of the 18 artists have already featured in previous group exhibitions. They include Sujah Shah, Wanjohi Maina, and Florin Iki who, at 21 years, is the youngest of the lot.
Admitting he had to do a bit of research to put it all together, he has assembled a mixed bag of media, techniques, subject matter, and genres. But those contrasts are one thing that gives the show its kinetic energy and power.
For instance, at one end of the gallery, you will find four sassy women standing tall in the Eritrean painter, Nahom Teklehaimanot’s ‘My Beginning, my middle, my end’ 1. Meanwhile, around another corner, you are unexpectedly struck by Sujah Shah’s playful dancers in his ‘Séance.’ Both use deep, bold colours to capture the mood of their moments. They bring an ineffable quality of vitality and energy that makes them come alive.
Then there is the hyper-realism of Eddy Ochieng’, the figurative stoicism of Adam Masava’s and Wanjohi Main’s everyday people, and the marvellous aluminium mannequins made by Austin Adika entitled ‘Butterflies and Roses’ (a series) and ‘Kaninja.’
In addition to all the figurative works, there are several abstract pieces in the show, like Anita Kavochy’s untitled works, Taabu Munyoki's ‘Does my hair make you uncomfortable’, Patrick Karanja’s untitled etchings, and Tanzanian artist Winifrid Luena’s light-infused ‘Metamorphosis X which is a photographic print on paper.’
Even the textile art of Tanzanian Liberatha Alibalio’s piece, ‘Reflection 1’ might be considered abstract, but I admire it for its marvellous mix of textiles (satin and cotton) and techniques, such as stitching both by hand and machine as well as quilting to contrast the geometry of her appliquéd forms.
There are still-life’s in the show, like Wanini Kimemiah’s ‘Acetone Fire.’ And there are even surrealist works like Eritrean artist Nebay Abraha’s ‘Cobweb VIII and X’ which convey a sadness that might come from living in a land that has seen too many years of war.
Don spent a good deal of time finding these artists.
“I had seen some of their works in various places,” Don told BDLife, days after the show opened on August 11. “Some, like the Eritreans, sent us their portfolios, while I met others when I was visiting Tanzania,” he added.
Don picked up curatorial skills with the support of the Goethe Institute. He worked in several art venues after that, and even spent some time, on his way to early learning about the history of the Kenyan art scene, interning at Paa ya Paa Art Centre with Elimo and Phillda Njau.
The ‘Small Fires’ is special because it introduces many emerging artists to a wider public, a public that is increasingly coming to appreciate contemporary Kenyan and African art.
‘Small Fires’ is up at Circle Arts until September 10.