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Art

How Carol Lees Built Her Gallery One Art at a Time

Elias Mongo'ra's piece. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA
Elias Mongo'ra's piece. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Carol Lees has a lot to show for her 25 years exhibiting Kenyan contemporary art as she illustrated last Wednesday at her 25th anniversary exhibition at Nairobi’s Rosslyn Riviera Mall.

She has had long-standing friendships with all 16 artists whose latest works fill the spacious walls of One Off ‘annex’.

For instance, Richard Kimathi is one whose artworks she showed when she was still at Serendipity, the first gallery she opened after leaving McNaughton – West Interiors and heeding advice from her friend, Mary Collis.

It was Mary who encouraged her to meet the need many artists felt in the early 1990s for a gallery.

“I had just turned 30 and felt I needed to do something for myself,” she told BDLife.

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The idea of opening a gallery made sense to her since she knew many artists through her interior design work. It was work that required her to fill the walls of leading banks, hotels and commercial offices with excellent artworks preferably by locals.

“I started off with works by Mary [Collis], Nadia Kisseleva, Tums Yeshim and one Sudanese artist who’d recently come to Kenya,” she recalls, having opened the first edition of One Off at Viking House in 1994.

“But then I made my way to Kuona Trust and found Richard [Kimathi] and others,” she adds.

Between 1994 and 2000, Carol was a bit of a nomad, moving from Viking House to Libra House and then to Shamneel Court in Westlands.

Peter Ngugi’s artwork

Peter Ngugi’s artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

But by then, she and Mary Collis were already talking about joining hands to establish what would become RaMoMa, or the Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art.

The two women shared a beautiful vision of what their new space would become. And for 10 good years, RaMoMa was the leading commercial art gallery in Kenya.

“But as RaMoMa was run as a Trust, I knew I would one day hand it over to someone else,” Carol says. “That is why I disassociated myself from One Off, but I didn’t fully shut it down.” She seemed to know that she would come back to it,” which of course, she did in 2010.

Initially, Carol ran RaMoMa out of Rahimtulla House where the Rahimtulla family covered most of the overhead expenses.

And with additional support from Ford Foundation, RaMoMa was able to mount regular exhibitions, publish its own art magazine and exhibit painters and sculptors who today are considered some of the leading contemporary artists in Kenya

Then in 2007, the affairs of RaMoMa took a radical turn. Carol and Mary made the decision to move from Rahimtulla House to Parklands where RaMoMa became a cultural phenomenon.

Artists exhibited

Mary had always dreamed of its being much more than just a gallery. She envisioned it becoming the equivalent of a MOMA in New York.

Carol recalls that once they got to Parklands, they ran five gallery exhibitions at once plus a print studio, library, gift shop, artist apartment, children’s wing, and a well-tended garden.

Behre Fitsum

Behre Fitsum’s artwork. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

There were also theatre and dance performances happening at RaMoMa.

But frankly, once they moved to Parklands, RaMoMa was no longer the exclusive responsibility of Carol and Mary. Members of the Trust began to take a more active role in decision-making which was a challenge to Carol who resigned in late 2009.

It was a difficult decision to make but thankfully, Carol went straight back to her home in Rosslyn and reopened One Off from there in 2010. She hasn’t looked backwards since.

Carol invited some of her favorite artists to start exhibiting exclusively with One Off.

With assistance from Kui Ogonga, she hung the most current works of artists like Beatrice Wanjiku, Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi, Wambui Collymore, Timothy Brooke, Fitsum Behre, James Mbuthia and Peter Ngugi.

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