New and established artists on show around Nairobi

Cat Central series (French version) by Bertiers Mbatia. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
Cat Central series (French version) by Bertiers Mbatia. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Lots of rising stars came into view this past week at various art centres around Nairobi.

The most conspicuous were on display last Saturday at Kuona Trust where more than 30 so-called ‘emerging artists’ were being showcased in ‘Art Walk 2014’, an exhibition that took advantage of Kuona’s gracious grounds to display the young artists’ works all the way from the entrance (off Denis Pritt Road) to the various artists’ studios past Kuona’s office, food court and lounge.

Only a fraction of the 30+ artists are based at Kuona. They include Rosemary Ahono, Andrew Mwini, LR Garang and Alex Njoroge.

The rest are either at the GoDown Art Centre such as Mike Kyalo, Robin Omweri and Nadia Wamuyu or they are young artists who saw Kuona’s call for ‘Emerging Artists’ to submit their work for the Art Walk 2014.

“We received more than 50 responses, but we only had space for those who are exhibiting,” said Linette Wangui who runs Kuona’s art sales shop.

“Many of those who applied are ones who had come to Kuona and asked if we could see their work. So rather than turn them away, we decided to invite them for a day-long Art Walk,” she added.

A few of those exhibiting are students of Kuona artist John Silver Kimani. They include John Mbugua Kimani and Winnie Cheptoo.

A few more aren’t exactly emerging since Onyis Martin, LR Garang, Patrick Kariuki and Gemini Vaghela all have had at least one exhibition before.

But the rest are newcomers to the Nairobi art scene and I must commend Kuona for giving these artists a platform on which to show their artwork.

The quality of their work ranges from promising to semi-professional with quite a few clearly by students just getting started and having a long way to go before they can consider themselves as anything but ‘emerging’.

Then on Monday night, Shifteye Gallery opened a new group exhibition with another set of artists - a number of whom haven’t been exhibited in Nairobi before.

But that’s not to discredit these artists whose artwork on paper was curated by Shifteye’s own Wamboi Kay. Those with the broadest experience include John Kamicha, James Njoroge and Maral Bolouri, all of whose works are appealing and expressive of soulful talent.

The others are also gifted, including Lemek Tompoika, Sebawali Sio, Churchill Ongere, Agnes Njoroge and Joshua Obaga. All of these could also be described as ‘emerging’, only that they are bound to appeal to younger audiences of art lovers, especially those who frequent Shifteye.

When it comes to a group exhibition filled with works by established East African artists, one needs to visit One Off Gallery where Carol Lees has curated ‘State of the Nation’ featuring mainly paintings by Anthony Okelo, Peter Ngugi, Ehoodi Kichapi, Alan Githuka, Shaba Mwangi and Salah Ammar.

Carol named the show herself since she found a political undercurrent in practically all of these artists’ pieces. Each of the Kenyans expressed varying types of concern for the country.

For instance, Alan Githuka paints a canvas full of faces meant to reflect the artists’ idea of ‘A Worried Nation.’

Anthony Okelo is more sarcastic about what he sees among Kenya’s so-called leaders or politicians. He clearly sees them as jokers, jugglers and clowns.

Peter Ngugi shares a similar sentiment although his beautiful painting filled with kitenge designs is deceptively appealing. If one looks closely, you will see it’s filled with men carrying kitenge-covered AK47s. His is a sobering social comment on the militarisation of our society.

Shabu Mwangi continues that conversation with his portrait of a lonely Somali who’s probably been rounded up by armed forces.

Ehoodi Kichapi is the most expressionistic of the group; however, his singular scull is also suggestive of the outcome of local life if a ‘war on terror’ comes too close to home.

But Salah, being Sudanese, prefers to keep his paintings more decorative and design-based rather than political or critical of Kenyan society.

Finally, two of the most established East African artists will be exhibiting in Nairobi in the next few weeks. The early paintings of the Ugandan artist Jak Katarikawe will be on display from September 1st at the Nairobi Gallery.

And at a venue yet to be disclosed, the Sudanese elder statesman of fine art, Salahi Ibrahim will also be exhibiting next month.

The mentor to so many Sudanese artists such as El Tayeb and Salah Elmur, Salahi is coming to Kenya from London where his art was on show at the Tate Modern.