Kevin Oduor and Cyrus Ng’ang’a had no idea what to expect as the two artists drove upcountry past Nyeri and towards Nyandarua a few weeks ago.
Bumping their way up a single-lane dirt road, they were especially surprised when they reached the medieval-styled gate to their destination — the site of Kuona Trust’s brand new community outreach art programme, Tafaria Castle.
The castle is meant to be a work of art in itself. Modelled after those European castles built between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, Tafaria was constructed from 2010 and based on specifications given by the castle’s owner, economist George Tafaria Waititu.
It was Waititu who approached Kuona Trust several months ago and offered his castle as a venue that Kuona could use to design an art project of their choice.
“I’ve always loved art, but I admit I didn’t know much about it,” Waititu told the Business Daily when we recently visited the castle with a group of Kenyan artists.
The day was special since Waititu had invited 80 secondary school teachers to lunch at the Castle after they’d been attending a hands-on art workshop during the week run by Oduor and Ng’ang’a.
The teachers’ art workshop had evolved after the two Kuona artists arrived at Tafaria and tried to invite residents to their new ‘community outreach programme’ which was aimed at sensitising locals on the value of the visual arts.
“But the plan was practically impossible to achieve — given the community had little interest in the arts, so we decided to turn to local school teachers first and hope that by familiarising them on the value of artistic self-expression, they’d in turn share those ideas with their students,” said Kuona director Sylvia Gichia whom we met at the Castle.
Preparing an art exhibition of works by the teachers and Kuona artists, including Oduor and Ng’ang’a, who had fashioned highly original sculptures using all local materials, Gichia explained that the exhibition was meant to enhance the teachers’ understanding of the possibilities the visual arts could open up to their community and students.
“We’d often heard that part of people’s disinterest in the arts was because they didn’t have art materials, so we insisted that Ng’ang’a and Oduor create art using only ‘found objects’ and materials from the local environment,” Gichia said.
That is how Oduor came up with sculpture that he’d initially shaped using clay he had made from mud found at a local river bank.
That is also how Ng’ang’a created a highly original metallic and wooden gate, made using scrap metal bits found in a Tafaria storeroom, including everything from bits of an old chandelier to circular wires from a damaged lampshade.
Admitting it hadn’t been easy figuring out what to do artistically, given they had been tasked with creating art from easily accessible local materials, both Oduor and Ng’ang’a confessed they’d been initially frustrated by their make-shift ‘art studio’.
Nonetheless, the two had been specially selected to ‘pioneer’ the art residency project since Gichia knew that both artists would be up to the challenge and able to pave the way for other artists to follow.
“We feel those who follow us will have an easier task in taking up the (Tafaria-Kuona) art residency since they’ll have a chance to learn from those who came before,” said Oduor, the sculptor best known for his role creating the Dedan Kimathi sculpture that stands smack dab at Nairobi’s central business district on Kimathi Street.
Ng’ang’a, who’s best known for his C-Stunner scrap metal ‘glasses’, said the residency could be a really rewarding experience for any local artist. However, they had to be prepared to think ‘out of the box’ and not expect the programme to be a breeze.
“Anyone who takes up the residency at the castle may bring some art materials with them, but the idea is to not depend on store-bought stuff. Rather it’s to see the artistic potential in all sorts of items in the local environment,” Gichia added.
The next lot of Kenyan artists currently up at the castle include Rosemary Ohono and LR Garang. Their residency began on the Open Day late last month when the teachers came for lunch and the Kenyan artists converged on the castle’s amphitheatre to exhibit their art.
That was also the day that Ng’ang’a and Oduor returned to Nairobi with the rest of the visiting artists, relieved to be coming back to the big city, but decidedly wiser and artistically richer for having been the first to go through the Tafaria-Kuona Art Residency programme.