While a big attraction for prospective clients of Kenyan art is the presence of the artists at exhibition openings (such as the one held last weekend at Dusit D2 Hotel), at One Off Gallery, curator Carol Lees took a different approach, mounting an exhibition of the artwork by Ngene Mwaura in his absence.
It was possibly a risk, especially as both shows opened the same day and few people may remember Mwaura who started out at Kuona Trust back when it was still at the National Museum more than 10 years ago.
But Carol did it for two reasons. The obvious one is because Mwaura isn’t around. He’s now based in the US and she only met him when he returned to Kenya recently and showed her samples of his work before he left.
So the second reason she took the ‘risk’ to show works by an absentee artist was, as she said, on the strength of the work itself.
Plus local artists who paint and draw like him are few and far between. One of them is Willie Wambugu whose intricate pencil drawings are as meticulously drawn as Mwaura’s but Wambugu’s works are black and white while Mwaura’s are vibrant with rich and varied colour.
What’s more, Willie often selects a single topic or item and draws variations on that one theme, be it a key, leaf, hand-tool or home furnishing.
Meanwhile, Mwaura is more of a storyteller whose drawings are both symbolic and surreal.
In fact, the one Kenyan artist whose colourful and cryptic drawings most closely resemble Mwaura’s are Wini Awuondo’s who exhibited at Shifteye Gallery more than a year ago.
Like his, Wini’s were intensely drawn with a deliberate attention to delicate detail. But the stories associated with their portraits (since both create fantastic images that have an obtuse resemble to real beings) are very different.
Mwaura was good enough to share some of the stories behind his paintings which help dissuade us from thinking his creatures are merely fantastical.
Instead, his show, entitled ‘Black Angels have Red Wings’ is largely about his late mother who played a critical role in his life. In fact, the exhibition could be seen as primarily paying homage to her.
It is she who often seems to occupy his mind, inspiring him to give shape to her angelic features in mythological forms.
Mwaura seems to share a perspective similar to one offered by Paul Onditi last week during an Artist Talk at his studio. Onditi encouraged his fellow artists to be true to themselves and not be overly-influenced by the critical comments of others.
He also suggested that the term ‘self-taught artist’ was a misnomer, since an artist may not go to art school (as Mwaura apparently did not), but he/she is likely to be learning all the time either in workshops, art residencies, online or merely by osmosis, picking up ideas and inspiration from his environment or from a mentor.
A number of the ‘Essence’ artists who are currently exhibiting their portraiture at the Michael Joseph Centre identify themselves as self-taught, but clearly the label (whether used, misused or dropped) doesn’t determine the quality of their art.
For instance, Elias Mung’ori, whose artwork is in both the Essence exhibition and the just-ended ‘Art at The Den’ show at Dusit D2 didn’t go to a formal art school; but his tutors in the school of life (whoever they were/are) had an extremely positive influence on him since his portraits and cityscapes are distinctive and haunting.
In fact, it’s no longer easy to distinguish between a so-called ‘self-taught’ and professionally schooled artist in Kenya today.
That is certainly the case with the former CPA-turned-painter Jeffie Magina whose ‘Childhood Nostalgia?’ show opened last Sunday at the Little Gallery in Karen.
Magina, like Mwaura, is caught up in intimate family matters, but it’s to their artistic advantage since they both explore a topic near and dear: Mwaura his mother’s memory, Magina his own memories of his childhood. They both delve deeply into their psyche to portray their personal thoughts and feelings in ways uniquely their own.
I haven’t yet seen Longinos Nagila’s exhibition, ‘Technicians of the Sacred’, which opened last night at The Art Space, but from my past acquaintance with his artwork, I have little doubt that he, too, is presenting art that reflects an in-depth perspective that’s original, thought-provoking and fresh.
Finally, tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon, Richard Leakey will open Mia Collis’ stunning photography exhibition entitled ‘The Zebra People’ at the Nairobi National Museum.