Polka Dot Gallery recently assembled an exhibition of contemporary artists who seemed to have little in common. But it was just good to see the boutique art gallery back in action, even if it was a pop-up show at Ikigai House in Westlands.
Formerly based at The Souk in Karen, the Gallery was displaced when that property changed hands and Lara Ray had to find a new home. In the interim, Polka Dot’s people have resided temporarily in studio space in Karen. But soon they will shift to Karen Village to be surrounded by a myriad of local artists.
For now, ‘The Ikigai Collection’ features art by Elias Mong’ora, Anne Mwiti and Sungi Mlengenya. Apart from their all being painters, the three just have one thing in common according to Gallery’s Manager David Gathumbi.
“We’ve received calls from the public asking to see artworks of all three artists,” says David. “Those asking have also expressed interest in buying their art,” he adds.
That’s just fine but what’s more interesting is the way the three balance each other dialectically.
For instance, most of Mong’ora’s elegant paintings are realist portraits of Nairobi’s city streets, including vehicles we see every day in the thick of traffic jams. But unlike the chaos visible on streets like ‘Haile Selassie’ and ‘Uhuru Highway’, his paintings of those roadways feel serene.
His buses, Land Rovers, lorries and even mkokotenis look law-abiding and benign.
His few portraits of people are equally sublime with one untitled painting of a woman seated casually, surrounded by oceans of organza or satin draped gracefully.
In contrast to Mong’ora’s earthy street paintings, Anne Mwiti creates otherworldly pieces that take one off the planet or into a psychic realm where men dangle from their toes as if they are about to hit ‘Rock Bottom’.
Then again, to counter-balance Mong’ora’s full-sized paintings, in this show Anne’s art is all in miniature. There’s a prevalent attitude among many local artists that small-sized paintings should be valued for less that larger ones.
But that perspective underestimates the importance of quality in terms of technique and skill. Nonetheless, that would seem to be why Anne’s paintings are the least expensive of all those in the show.
More than moderately priced, anyone with interest in her art should make their way quickly to Ikigai or directly to Polka Dot since her miniatures are little treasures priced way below what they are worth.
Finally, Sungi Mlengenya is a Tanzania artist who came to Kenya just about a year ago. But she apparently left an impression on the public since her art has been in demand ever since she was in a group exhibition earlier this year at Polka Dot.
Sungi also had a previous exhibition in Nairobi at BSQ’s Railway Museum studio with graffiti artist Swift Elegwa. But her painterly progress has accelerated since both of those shows.
The works she had up at Ikigai reflected a genuine progression in the development of technique since her earlier Nairobi shows.
How Sungi counter-balances the other two artists in ‘The Ikigai Collection’ is in terms of focus and theme.
She’s the only one to exclusively paints portraits of people while neither Mong’ora nor Anne has much time for portraiture in this exhibition.
However, Mong’ora’s one woman in satin is for me his best work, reflecting her natural beauty and elegance. Nonetheless, the rest of his works pays far more attention to machines, especially those on wheels, not human beings.
Anne too has little time to populate her semi-abstract scenes with people since it’s more conceptual and emotive than the straight-forward style of Sungi.