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Art

Sculpture Gardens Open New Chapter In Kenyan Art Scene

Chelenge with her sculpture
Chelenge with her sculpture. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

There is too much to say about the creativity of Kenyan sculptors after spending the day at One Off Gallery’s opening of its new two-acre Sculpture Garden which is accompanied by three other venues where more ingenious artworks overflow.

Who knew that Kenyan sculptors had gone so far, not just in their capacity to skilfully carve, (cut, chisel and/or weld) phenomenal pieces like those at One Off in Nairobi?

What is equally remarkable is their imaginative use of materials and the daring use of everything from pangas, plastic cigarette lighters and assorted spare parts and to peacock feathers, human flesh and five-ton granite stone.

50 artists

Altogether, the sculptures fill not only the much-anticipated garden but both galleries inside One Off and the spacious gallery annex at the Rosslyn Riviera Mall.

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Nearly 150 works of art, in all sizes, shapes and weights showed up at the gallery in response to Carol Lees’s call out to artists to bring their crafted rocks, wood, glass, clay and other sundry sculptures (or drawings of them) to the gallery. She even reached out to painters known to have a history of creating three-dimensional works, such as El Tayeb Dawelbait who assembled two ‘Mannequins’ out of spare parts from cars, computers and cooking stoves.

Others better known for being painters, printmakers and photographers whose works at One Off prove they are definitely sculptors as well are Peterson Kamwathi, Dennis Muraguri, Sebastian Kiarie, Tabitha wa Thuku and Sebawali Sio.

The exhibition features both veteran artists like the late Samwel Wanjau Sr., Edward Njenga, Nani Croze, Richard Onyango and Andrew McNaughton as well as newcomers like Silvester Mwangi, Taabu Munyora and Nelson Ijakaa (who sculpture was a multilayered video).

It also include wonderful works by the likes of Peter Walala (who sculpted molten plastic straws), Gakunju Kaigwa, Bertiers Mbatia, Kepha Mosoti, Maggie Otieno and Chelenge van Rampelberg among many others.

Nearly 50 artists in all have contributed to the exhibition entitled ‘Form’.

Samuel Wanjau JR

Samuel Wanjau JR. stone sculpture is called ‘Stomped’. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

The show’s curator, Marc van Rampelberg even enlisted a mime, Adam Chienjo who spent the opening day standing still in statuesque flesh, donned in grey body paint and a tiny pair of briefs.

He was easily mistaken for an exquisitely shaped statue, and recognised as a mortal man only as he gracefully walked from one corner of the garden to another.

‘Form” being the most inclusive exhibition ever seen at One Off since the gallery opened back in 1993, it was a thrill to see the way van Rampelberg tastefully placed so many different sculptures in ways that complemented one another.

Greatest sculptor

For instance, hanging Cyrus Kabiru’s bicycle sculpture from the high ceiling of One Off’s Annex couldn’t have been a better use of space.

It left room on the floor for the late Omosh Kindeh’s beautiful Lion bust as well as works like Sebastian Kiarie’s emotionally-charged ‘Throne’ made out of pangas (like those used in the 2007 post-election violence) and Bertiers Mbatia’s life-size ‘Journalist’ and larger-than-life scrap-metal Village Mama who greets you at the entrance of the annex. Also at all four venues are stone and wooden sculptures by the four Wanjau’s, including the late Samwel Wanjau, Senior (who’s considered Kenya’s greatest sculptor), his two sons, Jackson and Anthony, and Jackson’s son, Samuel, Junior.

All three offspring of the elder are outstanding artists in their own right. Indeed, one of the original ideas that preceded the notion of creating the Sculpture Garden was for Marc to curate an exhibition of just the Wanjaus since their contribution to Kenyan sculpture is immense.

Van Rampelberg has also enlarged that contribution by commissioning countless works from the offspring.

Nonetheless, it was he who suggested rather than focus on just one family, why not open up the show to all Kenyan sculptors.

That meant including longtime Kenya-based artists like Nani Croze, Baldy (Paul) Osborne, Van Rampelberg himself and Andrew McNaughton who was the first to upcycle wildlife sculpture out of plastic sandals. In “Form” however, he mixes the flip-flop blend with plastic lighters, all of which he picked off of the Watamu beach near his home.

To describe ‘Form’ as a world-class exhibition is not an overstatement. What’s more, Thom Ogonga’s ‘Contemporary View of Kenyan Sculpture” essay, contextualises the art form beautifully and comprehensively.

The one challenge the Kenyan sculpture scene still faces is shortage of women sculptors. There were six in ‘Form’. We look forward to many more.

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