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Art

One Off Gallery opens two exhibitions simultaneously

Letter writing by Lisa Milroy at one off's new space. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG
Letter writing by Lisa Milroy at one off's new space. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

One Off Gallery was true to its name this past weekend when it opened two exhibitions simultaneously. Or rather it was half-way true, given that one show, Lisa Milroy’s ‘Handmade’, inaugurated the gallery’s brand new space after Carol Lees’ transformed her stables into a bright, spacious set of rooms that will serve the gallery well. The space did just that for the British artist who came to Kenya initially to teach art to refugee children at the Kakuma Camp (with support from UNHCR and the Vodafone Foundation). But fortuitously she found her way to One Off, after which Carol invited her to launch the new space with her interactive and highly textured works of art.

But the other exhibition, featuring practically all of Carol’s favoured artists, was indeed a ‘one off’ affair. For the original gallery space, The Loft, is only large enough to allow for every one of those favoured few to show one fine work. The exceptions to the one-off ‘rule’ were Beatrice Wanjiku and Richard Kimathi who both showed more.

But because Carol had called on her artists to bring their ‘Latest works’ for this joint exhibition (which opened last Saturday and will run for all of April), each of them brought one of their best, thus ensuring that this side of the gallery would be highly favoured by One Off fans.

For instance, Challenge van Rampelberg’s Jacaranda wood sculpture, ‘Mediator’ is a gem of a work and echoes deep significance for an artist who’s had her own private battles to negotiate and mediate in recent times.

The same is true of Anthony Okello’s ‘Semblance of a house’ which has a touch of the artist’s ironic wit in his piece, given that he too has been struggling. Only his has related to home building. The portrait is of a man looking something like a house himself and being surrounded by drawings of homey designs.

James Mbuthia’s ‘Sisters’ is painted with the artist’s classic approach to portraiture. He creates a picturesque landscape background and multi-coloured muses who look like they’re living in bliss.

James Mbuthia's sister at One Off's Latest Works show. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

James Mbuthia's sister at One Off's Latest Works show. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Harrison Mburu is Carol’s ‘discovery’ from long ago when RaMoMa Modern Art Museum was alive and well, and Mburu was called by Carol to cover their Parklands’ staircase with his delightful (Jua kali-styled) dancers and dapper animals. They were like the one displayed in The Loft, although Carol’s got more of his charming and whimsical sculptures upstairs in her storage.

Ehoodi Kichapi always brings paintings to One Off that have a deeply hidden message which he clarifies philosophically if he’s on hand to tell. For unlike some artists who think they’re wiser (and cooler) to keep their ideas about their creations to themselves (not share them with the snoopy art reporters), Kichapi is bursting with ideas and ever willing to explain why for instance, he painted ‘A Head of a Cow’ without a body.

Translated he means to make a mockery of the local populace who live their lives doing daily routines but never giving serious thought to original ideas of their own. Somehow it all makes sense when he shares and one’s always prepared to hear more from him. Only at One Off this month, you’ll only see a single Kichapi on display. You’ll again need to head upstairs to find more of his artwork.

All the ‘Latest Works’ resonant the reason why people appreciate One Off and its curator, the former co-owner of RaMoMa with Mary Collis, who spotted all of her current crop of Kenyan giants many years back and has kept them close ever since.

Canadian artist Lisa Milroy is the one whose multiple works occupy the former stables with their natural light, pearly white walls and high-raftered ceilings.

Lisa comes to One Off with an impressive pedigree. She’s currently head of Graduate Painting at the Slate School of Art; graduated from the Goldsmith College University of London and has served as a Trustee on Boards at both the Tate Modern and the National Gallery.

Ehoodi Kichapi's Head of a cow. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Ehoodi Kichapi's Head of a cow. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

But it’s her fascination with ‘things’ and people’s interacting with them that’s apparently Lisa’s primary concern in her ‘Handmade’ show. She’s particularly intrigued with textiles and textures as is apparent in she ‘Layers’ painting of different laces, which for me is one of the most elegant works in her show.

Lisa admits she loves to ‘play’ with her media, either by inviting her audiences to interact with her textiles, be they colourful dresses or canvas-striped shoes. She even creates a ‘handbag’ that’s actually a carved and painted piece of wood which she entitled ‘Accessory Painting’ as if to play with the idea of women who are obsessed with handbags (there are apparently many!)

Process is also important in her art as when she creates one drawing about ‘letter-writing’ (which she admits is several years old, drawn before the era of email, Snapchat and Instagram). Half the painting is devoted to the elements essential to constructing and snail mailing a letter. The other half features three levels of cartoon-like illustrations of a woman in various stages of letter-writing. Her attention to detail is astounding, apparently not only with her letter-writing and ‘layers’ of silks but also with her brightly coloured plaids.

The centre of Lisa’s exhibition takes place around her most colorful interactive piece entitled ‘Off the Rack’. It’s a piece that includes a set of instructions on one wall near the clothes rack for the ‘how to do’ the interaction. You’re meant to select one of her 25 handmade dresses and place it against a wall-hanging of a duel-designed African fabric and appreciate how the patterns clash and contrast. Not that I would ever want to wear any one of her dresses, but that’s not the point. The point is to open one’s mind to new and different concepts of ‘painting’ and beauty, and to appreciate these broadened definitions of art and ‘handmade’ design.

All told, One Off’s double dosage of art is sharply contrasting but both are equally captivating. Lisa had the advantage of occupying the new wing of the gallery as her work is seen in natural light. Meanwhile, one challenging feature of The Loft is its artificial lighting.

Either way this month is a special time to visit One Off as the artworks and the space itself offer new views of art as well as appreciation of the creative output of Kenyans.

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