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One man’s insatiable thirst for Kenyan art

Curator-collector Hellmuth Rossler with
Curator-collector Hellmuth Rossler with abstract work by Kyalo Justus. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Hellmuth Rossler-Musch may very well have the largest private collection of East African art in Kenya, rivalled only by the one belonging to Mahindra Shah, former owner of the now defunct Sarang Gallery.

Not that I have scientific evidence to confirm my theory. However, after recently visiting the current exhibition at the Rossler-Musch’s Red Hill Gallery, I asked him if the show (containing around 20 paintings) only exposed a small fraction of his collection. Possibly a quarter, or an eighth? I posited.

“It’s more like one-fiftieth,” was the reply of the German biochemist and former pharmacist who spent several decades working in the health- care service industry all around Eastern Africa.

Not that he had a deep appreciation for African art during that time. His collection only started in 1994 after taking a trip to Nairobi where he first met his country woman, the late Ruth Schaffner who was running Gallery Watatu and promoting contemporary East African art, especially Kenyan art and artists like Annabel Wanjiku, Morris Foit, Justus Kyalo and the Ugandan ‘transplant’ to Kenya Jak Katarikawe.

Watatu

After that, his appetite for East African art became insatiable. He has been collecting art works from all over the region ever since.

His collecting began at Watatu but it hasn’t been confined to just one gallery. In fact, a good portion of his collection comes from Ruth’s number one rival, Mahindra Shah who ran the gallery across the road from hers.

It was in the Sarang Gallery that Hellmuth says he used to spend hours looking through the stacks and stacks of framed paintings and unframed prints that Shah had acquired, often from artists who desperately needed cash to survive.

Quite a few had initially taken their art to Watatu but were turned away either for lack of interest on the part of Ruth or because cash sales of their art were not forthcoming.

Unlike Ruth, Shah was generally prepared to pay cash on the spot when artists came in. The payment was not necessarily what the artists were asking for their work but having nowhere else to go, they were usually grateful to get whatever they got.

Gems

In that way, Shah was able to acquire a vast collection of artists’ works. It was from this diverse assortment that Hellmuth frequently found amazing gems, many of which are today worth many times more than what he paid for them.

“It was a time, unlike now, when Kenyan art wasn’t widely valued,” says Hellmuth who feels the last 10 years have witnessed an unprecedented groundswell of interest in East African art, both locally and overseas.

But it isn’t only the public’s appreciation that has soared; it is also the quality of artwork coming out of the region right now.

That quality can be seen in Red Hill’s current exhibition which primarily features Kenyan artists and works by several Sudanese artists as well.

Some of the artists have actually had exhibitions at the Gallery in the past. Among the Kenyans, that includes Justus Kyalo, Gor Soudan, William Wambugu and Peter Walala. And among the Sudanese, that includes Abusharia, El Tayeb and Salah Elmur.

As Hellmuth wanted this exhibition to reflect some of who he considers the best of Kenya’s contemporary artists, he’s also included art work by Peterson Kamwathi, Paul Onditi, Jessica Atieno, Shabu Mwangi and Joseph Cartoon.

Without a doubt, the exhibition is exceptional, especially since Helmuth has cultivated and refined his artistic taste for East African art in the last 21 years since first meeting Ruth.

Not for sale

Among the works that he particularly prizes is one by Peterson Kamwathi from the artist’s ‘protest series’. “It’s one of only three in the series still in Kenya,” says the gallerist and curator who adds that most of that series went to the US for an exhibition that Peterson had in Miami recently.

He also gives Peter Walala’s unique mitumba label canvases a pride of place in the show, especially after they won first prize at this year’s Manjano Art Competition.

Nonetheless, Hellmuth clearly values all the artworks in his priceless collection. That is evident from the fact that nothing in this show is for sale.

So why did he mount it in the first place? One reason is clearly that he wanted to share his collection with a wider audience. Indeed, one reason he and his wife Erica established Red Hill Gallery was not simply to make sales but also to provide yet another venue where East African artists’ works can be shown.

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