Kioko Mwitiki has set the bar very high. For not only did the scrap metal sculptor get so good at creating life-size Kenyan wildlife out of scraps that he had to send whole containers-full of his sculptures abroad just to meet his clients’ desires for his art.
Kioko often had to accompany his elephants, rhinos and giraffes to sites like the San Diego Zoo in the US where he also had to serve as curator, tasked with transforming part of the zoo into an art installation, even an ‘African Savannah’ filled with his metallic wildlife. He has done similar work at the Sonoma Desert Museum in Arizona and even in Tanzania’s Seregeti Park where he created a ‘Nature Trail’ to educate schoolchildren about the value of wildlife.
At the same time, Kioko has also trained young Kenyans to create creatures like his. Only theirs are usually smaller in scale, soldering warthogs rather than rhinos. But Kioko says he’s never let his apprentices leave until they look assured of earning a livelihood from their art.
Now that Kioko’s sculptures can be seen everywhere from airports to world-class zoos and five-star hotels, he has opened his own gallery. He’d actually opened Pimbi Gallery some time ago, but originally, Pimbi doubled for both a gallery and workshop where he fabricated all his art.
The spacious Kioko Mwitiki Art Gallery next door to Lavington Mall, not only has sufficient space to exhibit his porcupines, ballerinas, elands and totems, he also exhibits other artists’ works. Some are established like Justus Kyalo; others relative newcomers like the six whose group exhibition opened in mid-March and runs through to mid-April. The six include painters who work in acrylics and watercolours as well as a printmaker and a photographer.
There is one among them who has started painting in 1980s. That’s Annabelle Wanjiku who brought her colourful semiabstract paintings from Uganda (where she now stays) to Kioko especially for this exhibition.
At the other end of the spectrum is Shilpi Deb, a 24-year-old who recently graduated from art school in Mumbai, the same school that both her father and grandfather went to. She is only been back in Kenya a year, so this is her first exhibition.
Her woodcut prints cover a whole wall at Kioko’s double-decker gallery. She also displays a series of paintings on etched wood plates which have a cubist angularity to them. The one photographer in the exhibition is Billy Miaron who, like Shilpi was given a whole wall to fill with his black and white photographs, some portraits, others landscapes.
But his most striking image is a multiple-exposures view of Mount Kilimanjaro shot from his home village of Illasit near Loitokitok at the Tanzanian border. Billy admits to touching-up his multilayered image using Photoshop, but only to enhance the magnificence of the mountain and the earthy texture of village life.
Another one of the painters is Kevin Ndege who studied University in mathematics. But once he got a job doing illustrations for MacMillan Publishers, his fate was sealed. He started painting in 2016. His art reflects on modern maladies of the mind, referencing common fears, some illusory, others cautionary but all needing to be addressed before they can be overcome.
Finally, Thomas Gatura is a watercolourist who paints both abstract and realistic works which are miniature in scale compared to Shiku Wang’ombe’s bright and bold acrylic paintings, several of which practically fill one wall each.
These six will have their artworks up for the month. Meanwhile, Kioko opens his gallery every Wednesday to artists to exhibit there.
“One big advantage we have is that since we’re working with wildlife organisations like the Jane Goodall Foundation, we get many visitors from abroad.”
He also holds apprenticeship programmes at the workshop and runs recycling workshops in the US.