Artists’ Open Studio Days are always good times for visiting artists at their working space and seeing their artworks ‘in progress’.
Kobo Trust started off some years back being a Spanish safari travel business. But as it’s also been keen to introduce their clientele to Kenyans who are actively involved in developing the country, Kobo opened its arms to embrace local artists a few years back. And ever since, it’s opened up studio space to everyone from Peter Elungat and Kaloki Dickson to Onyis Martin, David Thuku and Gemini Vaghela, the latter three of whom are still basing their artistic practice at Kobo which has also opened a gallery.
Among the other artists currently working at Kobo who opened their studio space up for visitors to come see what they do and where they are artistically are Lemek Tompoika, Paul Njihia, Deng Chol, Onesmus Okamar and Tabu Munyoki.
Personally, I appreciate artists’ open days since it feels like there’s so much transparency there. Courage too, since much of what is available for our seeing is unfinished works. That means they may affect big changes in a painting, wood cut or installation after it’s been seen on open day.
Some artists don’t want to be disturbed before they have finished items to share in an exhibition. Others have said they actually ‘fear’ exposing their artwork to the public before they can copyright it, for fear another artist will ‘steal’ their ideas. To me, that fear is pitiable since every artist is an individual and if your idea is your own, it might be imitated but the original will always be known, if not now then in times to come.
Open day at Kobo was fascinating, first because of the generosity of the artists, each of whom is unique. There is no one at Kobo imitating another. No way. For instance, Onyis Martin was in the process of creating an amazing installation based on ‘Memory’. His mother was a seamstress, which is how he learned to stitch and how he could create the tie and dye backdrop of his creation: a patchwork of black, white and grey marble-colored pieces that he’s stitched together with the Singer sewing machine that he personally owns.
When I met Onyis on Saturday, he was hanging four square-shaped framed prints that he had created. Each one had a seated man in silhouette draped in a lacy design which he said was inspired by the petticoat patterns he’d seen his sisters wear as he was growing up in Eastlands.
To paraphrase what he told me, he said he wanted to convey a feeling of man at ease in the presence of female imagery. It was part of the memory he had as a child surrounded by big and little sisters.
Also part of his installation was a sculpture of a faceless being draped in a cloth and lain on the floor just ahead of his four framed prints. The sculpture was sarcophagus-like and yet it wasn’t meant to be maudlin. Instead, Onyis said it was to further invoke the idea of memory since the actual experience is long gone. Fascinating.
David Thuku’s working with silkscreen and cut-outs continues following his recent solo exhibition at Red Hill Gallery. He’s working now with a mentee named Tabu Munyoki, a Kenyatta University graduate in fine art who first met Thuku when she was on attachment at Kuona Artists Collective and Thuku was still there.
“I met many fine artists at Kuona, but there was something specific about David that I felt I needed to learn,” says Tabu who’d been learning the art of silk-screen printing from Thuku and already had interesting prints on display in her mentor’s corner of Kobo upstairs.
Njihia Paul is also upstairs. Having just recently had his own one-man exhibition at Circle Art Gallery last July, he felt he’d completed that series of works which were all about the ‘works in progress’ construction which he’d watched go up all over Nairobi and its outskirts where he lives. “I am in the process of going back to painting people, I think,” says Njihia who had actually financed his way through school by drawing clever caricatures of people. He’s such a versatile artist, one will see what comes next.
Lemek Tompoika also just had an exhibition at The Attic Art Space on ‘Identity’ and he is still working with that concept which he translates into interesting abstract designs.
Also upstairs is the Sudanese artist Deng Chol, who happened to meet Peter Elungat when Peter was still based at Kobo. Deng has trained in both the arts and sciences, studying everywhere from Egypt, Sudan and Libya. A gifted abstract artist he adds a colorful accent to the collective, offering a pan-African perspective in the process.
Finally, downstairs as one steps foot into the studio space one will meet Onesmus Okamar who also recently had a two-man exhibition with Ron Enoch Luke right there in Kobo’s spacious gallery space. Both Ron’s and Onesmus’ artworks from the show were on display at the studio, so if you missed the exhibition, the best paintings from it are still at Kobo.
Gemini’s elegant abstract art is tucked away behind Onesmus’ paintings, but she has translated her abstract interpretations of nature colors onto both canvas and silk-like scarfs that make for graceful wearable art in all colours of the rainbow.
All the Kobo artists are welcoming to visitors and seemed to suggest they don’t mind having guests come to visit anytime.