The discreet charm of a private viewing, but not even a cup of tea

Friday September 6 2013

Head, by Otieno Kota. Pictures: Frank Whalley

Head, by Otieno Kota. Pictures: Frank Whalley 

Posh London galleries have a private viewing room, in which their wealthier clients are seated with a glass of rather good wine to look at a selection of works paraded before them.

The men presenting the pictures wear pin stripe suits and flowing silk ties; the women short skirts and dangerously high heels — although it could be the other way round. Anyway, the assistants who carry the pictures and little sculptures in and out wear spotless white gloves.

Oh, the excitement of it all. Hugs all round. You don’t have to shuffle through a gallery to look at paintings like the rest of us. Instead the pictures — and they include the cream of artistic endeavour through the centuries — are actually placed reverentially before us.

Masters from Rembrandt to Cezanne, Van Gogh to Picasso are presented for our delectation; their genius humbled by our taste.

And now the concept has come to Nairobi.

Here it is all rather more down to earth. I didn’t even get a cup of tea after being led into the viewing room, there were no suits and the gallery director was dressed even more casually than me, and I was in my usual scruffs of jeans and a sweat shirt.

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By the time I had finished looking at the pictures, I came out convinced it was all an excellent idea… peaceful, quiet, delightfully informal and a chance to view paintings without distractions.

So kudos for nicking a good idea and making it even better go to the directors of Circle Art Agency, set up by Danda Jaroljmek (former director of the Kuona Trust arts centre), Fiona Fox and Arvind Vohora.

The viewing room is at their offices behind a bakery and between two restaurants on James Gichuru Road; so handy for those client lunches.

In a room painted a soft white and beautifully lit — the level can be adjusted to taste — the pictures are propped on benches running around the walls at around two feet high. Easy to see; easy to move. It is a professional, unfussy way to view and although they have not been going for long — around a year — it seems that Circle has amassed a group of blue chip pictures that would grace any collection.

For a start there was a rare crayon portrait by Tonio Trzebinski, the painter shot dead outside his lover’s house in Karen, Nairobi, in 2001. The face emerges wraith like from a maze of ticks, dashes and crosses, known in the art world as “gestural marks”. It is one of a series of six portraits (self portraits, perhaps?) and perhaps could be read as a premonition of his own mortality.

And then an ink drawing of three cyclists by the artist and writer Zihan Kassam caught my eye. Her bold attack with a heavily loaded brush reminded me of Sophie Walbeoffe. Unsurprisingly it was already sold.

Other good things abounded: A delightful little Sane Wadu, an Allan Githuku — haunting faces around a lake — and a magnificent abstract by Justus Kyalo; predominantly green with a rust red stripe, it seemed to change from joyful to sombre with the play of light.

There were a couple of Sybilla Martin’s immaculate abstracts too; a painter who always finishes her work so beautifully, from the seamless quality of her paint to the perfect stretching and understated frames.

But perhaps best of all for me was a small head by Otieno Kota, a brilliant if underrated artist. A profile in a patchwork of earthy shades, the face is stitched to a background of scarlet and white with accents of black.

Many of these artists will be represented in Circle’s next venture — an evening auction at the Villa Rosa, Nairobi’s latest hotel — a vast Italianate palace painted pink at the side of Chiromo Road.

Slated for November 5, it will feature 40 works by 40 artists, including Wadu, Wanyu Brush, Michael Soi, Ehoodi Kichape and Ancent Soi with a sprinkling of classics by the Tanzanians Eduardo Tingtinga and George Lilanga.

You don’t have to be a buyer to enjoy these works. You can slip in for the four days of viewing preceding the auction and take in what could well turn out to be one of the best free exhibitions in East Africa.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.