Kenya may be best known for its runners, wildlife, coffee and tea. But we have yet to gain renown for our indigenous stones, although it’s likely that would have changed had the multi-tonne Kisii stone sculpture of Elkana Ong’esa’s ‘Elephant Family’ arrived as scheduled in Washington, DC for the Smithsonian Institution’s summer festival of 2014.
Sadly, the sculpture never left Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) due to a combination of confusion and corruption on the part of Kenyan organisers of the Smithsonian trip.
“That sculpture was meant to be exhibited and then auctioned off at the Smithsonian, which would have given an international audience the chance to see the beauty of Kisii stone sculpture,” says Mutuma Marangu, curator of the Kenyan stone exhibition currently on at Nairobi National Museum.
“Nearly Extinct: Elephants and Rhino” is an exhibition of over 70 sculptures commemorating two of our most endangered species. Created by four of the country’s finest stone sculptors, they all ‘cut their teeth’ artistically working in Kisii soap stone.
But for this special show, the four have sculpted in more than 17 indigenous stones collected from Kisii, Kajiado, Kiambu, Kwale, Meru, Migori, Tsavo and Turkana.
The four sculptors are Peter Kenyanya Oendo, Gerard Motondi Oroo, Charles ‘Duke’ Kombo and Robin Okeyo Mbera whose ‘Afro-cubism’ exhibition was curated by Mutuma at the museum a year ago.
“This exhibition was first discussed three years back. Mutuma said he wanted to highlight the issue of conservation,” says Peter, who was the first sculptor from Kisii that Mutuma met.
“He found me and my sculpture at Village Market 12 years ago. That is when he started collecting sculpture from Kenya,” Peter recalls. Professionally, Mutuma works in the field of finance. But he has become one of Kenya’s most committed collectors of indigenous stone sculpture.
“I started collecting once I realised that art was an excellent way to get to know Kenyans from other parts of the country,” he says.
But more than simply getting to know the artists, Mutuma feels strongly that their skills as well as the wide array of indigenous stones that they can sculpt makes them ‘world class’.
“Another thing that makes their work exceptional is that these four artists sculpt using both hand and power tools, which isn’t true of sculptors in other parts of Africa,” says Mutuma, comparing Kenyans to sculptors from Zimbabwe, Egypt and Senegal.
What also makes them special in the curator’s mind is that they can sculpt both in soft stones (like the soap stone from Kisii) as well as hard stones (like the petrified woods from Turkana and Kisii).
Peter credits Ong’esa for being the first Kisii artist to start sculpting in stones other than the ones from Kisii. However, Peter ’s 2014 exhibition at Village Market in Nairobi is the first time I personally saw so many indigenous stones carved by a Kenyan artist.
In this show, all four sculptors work in a variety of stones, although Peter who has more than 30 pieces in the show has also practised his skill on nearly all the various stones in the show. Those include everything from amethyst, basalt, bluelace agate, granite, graphite, green petrified wood and limestone to magma (volcanic) stone, marble and mudstone, opal, petrified wood, pumice (volcanic) stone, quartz, sandstone (aka grinding stone), silicate, soap stone and water-filtered stone.
With all of the works under individual glass cases, the exhibition can initially feel slightly impersonal, especially as all of the stones seem to beg ‘please touch me.’ All clearly have diverse colours and textures, although most have been carefully smoothed and polished.
The only sculptures that appear to have jagged edges are the amethyst, featuring a family of elephants carved in-the-round and one petrified wood elephant whose shape is semiabstract, in part because Kenyanya’s sculpting seems to have followed the grain of the wood.
But whether jagged or smooth, the sculptures are not meant to be merely beautiful works of art. According to Mutuma, he hopes the exhibition will be multi-purposed in that it will ideally generate interest in not only art and conservation, but geology, geography, and a host of other concerns that he sees arising from the exhibition.
With all the sculptures spread across the Creativity Gallery according to the chronology in which each artist carved his pieces, Mutuma has also create a giant map of Kenya, clearly designating which counties are the sources of all the indigenous stones.