Let’s be clear. National Museums of Kenya is not an art institution. It’s wishful thinking to imagine that it is. That is why my ears perked up when a discussion started recently about Kenya needing a Museum of Art, which the country does.
But for the time being, a Kenyan art museum is still just talk. We can thus be grateful for the Nairobi National Museum where Kenyan artists’ works are not only found upstairs in the Creativity Gallery where the group exhibition of paintings and sculptures entitled ‘Glad Tidings’ has been extended through the end of the month.
Even downstairs and outside, artworks are everywhere. Outside, there are glass sculptures by Tonney Mugo, stained glass windows by Nani Croze, a labyrinthine Peace Path by Elkana Ong’esa, a cement ‘Mother and Child’ sculpture by Francis Nnaggenda, another sculpture, ‘Artist at work’ by Jackson Wanjau, and several more by the late Charles Carol Bwire.
One of Bwire’s is the life-size sculpture of the Museum’s founder and acclaimed archaeologist Dr Louis Leakey which rests right in front of the auditorium named after him. Another is the magnificent monumental dinosaur that anatomically replicates its ancestors from many millions of years ago.
Then inside, even before one enters the Creativity Gallery there are artworks on display by everyone from John Odoch-Ameny, Anthony Okello and Justus Kyalo to Kamau Kariuki. Of these four, I believe only Kamau’s impressive impasto portraits were recently hung. The other three are part of the Museum’s permanent collection.
I’m a fan of all of these artists’ work although I was just introduced to Kamau’s portraiture a year ago. He’s in the Kenya Arts Diary 2019 and the Diary’s Preview exhibition at Alliance Francaise where his painting turned out to be the most popular for young Kenyans to stand in front of as they took their selfies! (That’s not to say selfie-popularity is a measure of quality or value, but it does say something about a new generation of Kenyans’ growing appreciation of contemporary art.)
The exhibition upstairs in the Creativity Gallery is one of the best I have seen in a while at the Museum. It’s a generous mix of colour, character, technique and joy.
Of the five painters featured in the show, namely Anwar Sadat, Deng Chol, Ngula Yusuf, Ruth Nyakundi and Yusuf Ssalu, it is only Ngula’s art that I haven’t seen before. He has one piece on display, a colourful abstract work that has a warm rhythm and muted blend of hues.
Ssalu also has just one work in the show. And like his fellow Ugandan, his art is colorful, abstract and suffused with joyful energy, fitting for the exhibition’s name.
The artist whose paintings also has a happy glow and high energy content is South Sudanese painter Deng Chol. Deng also does abstracts and has got plenty of them in the show. Many are in organic auburn hues and veritably vibrate with a spirited feeling of some life-force.
Ruth Nyakundi’s speciality is silhouettes on blood red canvases that always have appeal. Her work is familiar as is that of the other Ugandan in the show, Anwar Sadat. He’s brought several works which echo a wildlife theme. It’s a theme that strikes one instantly as you enter the gallery since it’s the focus of most of Charles Bwire’s contribution to this eclectic exhibition.
Charles is the nephew of the late great Charles Carol Bwire and he’s chosen to follow the same line of artistry as his uncle. The big difference between the two is that the younger Bwire creates wildlife sculptures in miniature forms rather than monumental ones. His gifts to the exhibition are bronze-like miniatures of everything from lions, leopard and rhino to hippo, tortoise and eagles.
Like his uncle, this Bwire didn’t attend a fine art college. Instead, he was mentored by some of the best wildlife sculptors in Kenya. The elder Bwire was also mentored, but not by professional sculptors. When I met the elder many years ago, he was busy installing his Leakey sculpture at the Museum. I confess, I was amazed at his uncanny ability to precisely capture every delicate feature of the great archaeologist's human form.
What the soft-spoken Bwire explained was that he’d worked for years for a Mr Zimmerman, the taxidermist who all the white hunter went to with their ‘kills’ for him to disembowel and then reconstruct as prized trophies. It was there that he’d learned all about anatomy and how both humans and animals are constructed, from the inside out.
With that history in mind and my fierce opposition to the hunting or poaching of Kenyan wildlife, my favourite Bwire’s piece are his lion ‘trophies’. That’s becase they are made not from real animals but with carefully crafted plaster and bronze paint.