Glad tidings in artists’ diverse expression of ‘African’ Christmas

Deng Chol
Deng Chol’s mixed media piece. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Glad Tidings is an exhibition running in the Creative Gallery at the Nairobi National Museum, which seeks to express the Christmas season through different forms of art.

Many artists have come together to make the exhibition, including Deng Chol, Charles Bwire, Ruth Nyakundi, Anwar Sadat, Yussuf Ssali and Ngula Yusuf.

Deng Chol’s work is particularly prominent. Working in mixed media, the artist has numerous pieces in the collection. His work is captivating in the way that it is abstract.

The work seems like it is in layers. The more you look at one piece of his work, the more you become aware of something new and different. In one angle, you will see masks, in another women, in another traditional musical instruments and in yet another a combination of some of these.

As a consequence of his using newspapers as part of his physical media, Chol’s work also gains a political aspect. A close inspection of the newspapers will reveal stories about the strikes of public workers, a hacking of the Communications Authority and the work of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission.


Also political are Charles Bwire’s animal sculptures. Specifically, a sculpture depicting the man-eaters of Tsavo seats above a call for efforts towards the repatriation of the man-eaters of Tsavo which were sold to a Chicago museum for $5000. This fits into current discourse around the repatriation of African art, especially from museums in Europe. However, it also brings to light the need to hold to account local policy makers in order to drive them to recognise the value of our heritage and protect it.

I had some difficulty connecting much of the artwork to the Christmas theme, but enjoyed the exhibition nonetheless. What was apparent was the effort to Africanise Christmas.

For instance, a piece by Chol which is reminiscent of the wise men following a star actually depicts African women and a moon to celebrate motherhood. Further, Ruth Nyakundi’s work also implied for me the wise men scene, but the men were clad in traditional shukas.

Anwar Sadat’s We Belong series was a favourite of mine.

The artists have a note in the exhibition about Christmas as a time for people to secure their sense of belonging. Sadat’s interpretation of this is a series depicting animals such as birds, fish and camels as well as dark long-legged people and traditional huts. It brings to mind the beauty of the earth as our home and the origin of our sense of belonging. Further, it is attractive in the way that Yussuf Ssali’s work is because of its burst of colour.