Master comic Ng’ang’a’s works for Scandinavia

Saturday January 16 2010

The ‘Sun' by Jesse Ng’ang’a which will be exhibited in the Scandinavia. FILE

Congratulations to Jesse Ng’ang’a, who was asked to send six of his paintings for exhibition in Scandinavia throughout this year, starting with a show in Denmark.

They include several examples of his hallmark screaming skulls and graffiti — an assault on the senses that resolves into a coherent cry of outrage — plus the leering Sun that typifies the artist’s unerring comic timing.

Another of Ng’ang’a’s works, a painting of the singer Ali Farka Toure stripped down, black, burnt and glaring out above his upright guitar, has been taken to Italy for exhibition in the prestigious Casoria Contemporary Art Museum, in Naples.

You might think that the Italians, used to the glories of the Quattrocento, might have doubts about edgy easel painting. Yet they have an eye for quality (and an overwhelming interest in good design, whether of clothes or a nutmeg grinder) that puts their country at the forefront of taste in contemporary movements. I should think Ali Farka Toure will feel quite at home.

It’s funny how quality will always tell. I was thinking the other day of a juxtaposition of Stonehenge and I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre, or Michelangelo’s Pieta and the Bird Nest stadium in Beijing. They would look just fine together because they share that almost spiritual reverence for space.

Ng’ang’a is to painting what Samuel Beckett is to writing: Lean, pared to the bone, with a grim sense of comedy, stripped of pretension, alarming — and essential.


The New Year’s exhibitions are getting into full swing, with Timothy Brook’s drawings moving from the RaMoMA in Nairobi’s Parklands just up the road to La Rustique restaurant on General Mathenge Drive. A few new drawings have been added to replace those sold and to freshen up the show, according to the curator, artist Xavier Verhoest.

And at the RaMoMA it is photographer Anders Grum’s turn to bring back blushing into the spotlight.

The 34 black and white prints that make up his exhibition are small, each around A4, and unframed. They sit inside their numbered cream mounts lightly tacked to the walls of two of the upstairs galleries.

Grum, a Dane, worked as an architect in Copenhagen before coming to Kenya in 1968 to lecture at the University College, Nairobi.

While there, he took up photography and only seven years later, such was the quality of his work — that key word again — he was made an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society of the UK.

Many times he visited Ukambani and photographed Kamba dancers — stamping, leaping, whirling, drummed into a frenzy. His pictures caught a world that even in the seemingly short passage of some 40 years no longer exists.

Yes, the Kambas still dance — indeed they are famous for it — but no longer because they believe their lives depend on such celebrations. The reason for the dance, along with the times, has changed.

Grum also journeyed in 1974-75 to picture the Pokot and, notably, the Rendille, moving to the Marsabit desert with his wife and four children to live among them as he captured their nomadic lifestyle as camel pastoralists.
He walked the walk.

It is these pictures of pastoralists that make up the bulk of the show: Particularly striking are the Rendille with their camels bearing that peculiar high-arched superstructure beloved of the guide books.

By their nature, these photographs are quieter, more academic than the Kamba series. They lack their energy but are a fascinating record of a lifestyle in Kenya now largely passing if not already gone. Yet as you stare at these lost lives there is more ...

Clearly Grum is fascinated by the play of light. Many of his pictures are marked by silver spirals of dust arising from deep shadow. They achieve a beautiful translucency that rewards patient observation.

People with time to spare will find themselves seduced by this artful photographer, drawn slowly into his gentle world … and probably wishing they could stay there for ever.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a media and fine arts consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]