GALLERIES: A rusty old wreck? Oh no, it’s a winner!

Friday April 3 2020

The state of the State, by Onyis Martin.

The state of the State, by Onyis Martin. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

FRANK WHALLEY
By FRANK WHALLEY
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I have good news for people whose cars are rusty wrecks.

Their unroadworthy heaps have suddenly shot up in value to levels they could only dream about.

But to cash in, you have to sell them as works of art.

The proof can be found at the current Manjano competition-exhibition at Village Market, Nairobi, where the rust-bucket shell of a Mitsubishi Celeste, bought for just $300, is on offer for a stunning $8,000.

It was created by rising art star Onyis Martin, who painted the sole remaining door bright orange and provided this work’s catchy title—The state of the State.

The judges deemed it a winner and awarded Martin joint first prize in the Practicing Artist category; a handsome $2,250.

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So even if it doesn’t sell, it has already earned its owner more than seven times its purchase price.

For Martin, the only other costs were in a bit of welding and then transporting the thing from his studio.

To be fair, that only puts him in the same category as any of the other artists who submitted pieces for this 11th annual show, organised by the city’s GoDown arts centre, and scheduled to be on until April 13.

Any artwork (well, almost any) is worth far more than the price of its parts; canvas, paint, lump of stone or whatever.

Nevertheless it strikes me as a very democratic sort of art—albeit a somewhat simplistic one—open to anyone with a wrecked car on their hands and a penchant for providing a catchy title.

Joint winner with Martin (and also trousering $2,250) was Leevans Linyerere with yet more junk...a free-standing door from his Umoja Series, covered in scrap bolts and hasps. With all the bolts drawn back, it stands as an invitation to enter a world of peaceful coexistence.

Cityscapes

Elsewhere traditional cityscapes were the order of the day.

Kenyatta Market by Nadia Wamunyu won third prize in the Practicing category, with a teeming scene in oils on canvas featuring heavy impasto and a rather chalky palette. Other artists focused on the city’s people; the mkokotenis, a man frying breakfast mandazis, and a knife grinder, for example.

But as always the joy of a competitive show is disagreeing with the judges and I am still marvelling at how they came to overlook Maina Wamae’s super-realist charcoal and graphite drawing called Power; the head of a young woman looking steadily out at the viewer.

'Power' by Maina Wamae. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY |
'Power' by Maina Wamae. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

There is sadness in her eyes, but the drawing is saved from sentimentality by the sense that she has the resilience to overcome a passing sorrow; the power of the title that radiates beyond the frame.

Portrait

Another artist who made his subject live in our space is Tony Adenbesa, whose First Time in Nairobi is a portrait of a small boy, his face shining with the excitement of visiting the city. So of course, no prize for that one either.

Meshack Oiro’s sculptures of boda boda bikes were other highlights. He continues to delight with his original assemblages of found objects (more repurposed junk; Manjano was big on it, this year), which is more than can be said for Victor Binge with his decorated radios, an idea blatantly borrowed from Cyrus Kabiru.

One of the more involving pieces was a collage called Tales, by Derrick Munene, made up of 288 small triangular photographs that detailed various aspects of life in the city. No prize for that, naturally.

The cheapest and one of the best exhibits was a little aluminium casting called Mfikiriaji (Thinker) that would fit in the palm of your hand. By Adam Yawe, it was priced at only $100, while Benson Njangiru’s Mama Mboga, selling vegetables in a crate that became her kiosk, was hung from the wall and priced at a very reasonable $320.

It made runner up in the Students category, which was won by Isaiah Mulunga’s fine painting of children, The Three Musketeers.

Third place went to Brian Oirya for a heavily stylised party scene.

From students to established artists who, as well as Onyis Martin, included Patrick Mukabi with a wall-sized view of the backsides of a group of market women called Tatu Kumi (Three for Ksh10) and Samuel Githui’s overhead view of cyclists; Wachukuzi (Carriers).

However, this year it was left mostly to relative unknowns to carry the Manjano flag.

And if that did little for the overall quality of the exhibition, it did at least ensure that emerging talents were encouraged to battle on, self-isolated at their easels, even as breakdown trucks rumble past from the scrapyard to other artists’ studios.