GALLERIES: Art that creates garden of delight

Thursday August 8 2019

The Brave Warrior, by Peter Kenyanya. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

The Brave Warrior, by Peter Kenyanya. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

FRANK WHALLEY
By FRANK WHALLEY
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Sculpture gardens must be like matatus — you wait for one in vain and then all at once three show up.

For while preparations for the One-Off gallery’s sculpture garden in Nairobi are forging ahead, two others are already up and running with a string of exhibitions to their credit.

BASKING IN THE SUN

And coincidentally both are letting their exhibits bask in the sun on Kenya’s coastline.

At Mtwapa, a few kilometres north of Mombasa, is Sergio and Catherine Lieman’s sculpture garden.

They specialise in large works — many of them Shona from Zambia and Zimbabwe — and display around 20 of them in their garden.

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They rotate exhibits with others from their gallery in Spain.

And still further up the coast, at Malindi, is the Ndoro gallery and sculpture garden, where Danish expat Carola Rassmussen is showing around 300 — yep, 300 — pieces, again mostly Shona, dotted among the flowers and shrubs.

Rassmussen likes to present paintings by East African artists too, and her current indoor exhibition is of a new group by the Tanzanian painter Victor Tarimo, from Moshi, entitled Greetings from Kilimanjaro.

POWERFUL SCULPTURES

Back at the One-Off, where the garden is scheduled to open at the end of this month, works already in place include, as well as Peter Kenyanya’s giant warrior woman carved from granite, pieces by Peterson Kamwathi, Peter Ngugi, Irene Wanjiru, Harrison Mburu and members of the Wanjau family.

There is a powerful sculpture too in the grounds of the Red Hill Art Gallery off the road to Limuru, but it happens to be in the garden rather than as part of a sculpture garden per se.

Called Eagle Head, the colossal beaked figure was carved in 1979 from grey serpentine by the First Generation Shona master Bernhard Matemera of Zimbabwe.

I have to say that generally I think Shona sculpture, like too many Kisii soapstone pieces, has an easy, production line appearance and looks better in a Woolworths store decorating furniture than on a plinth — but I make an exception for Eagle Head.

Serene and strong it stands on a slight rise in the ground from where it imperiously surveys the gallery and its grounds.

Inside is a mixed exhibition of some 26 works by the gallery’s Kenyan artists, curated by the owners Hellmuth and Erica Rossler-Musch.

WELCOME REAPPEARANCE

Most of these works we have seen before and can now enjoy again. They include the magnificent hessian hanging of three tortured figures by Samuel Githinji.

It presents a Christ-like central figure wearing a crown of thorns, flanked by two other figures; the eyes of all three obscured by a heavy blood-red bar.

The composition and iconography reference the Crucifixion, and are a metaphor for how migrants suffer for our inaction.

Previously shown here last September, at 2.2 metres high by two metres wide, it has an end wall to itself and commands the space.

Adjoining it is another Githinji, this time a canvas in the Expressionist style, of a single snarling figure… another example of this artist’s view of a world red in tooth and claw.

Here too are three large monotones by Churchill Ongere from his familiar series reflecting the chaos and uncertainty of life, with open-ended boxes representing open doors of many possibilities tumbling across the surface.

A couple of paintings from Michael Musyoka’s recent Red Hill exhibition Time and Other Constructs, with their rich palette and meticulous detailing, make a welcome reappearance, while on the table are a number of black wash drawings from Onyis Martin’s migrancy series, travel documents fixed to the surface next to the contorted figures.

Also on the table are three of David Thuku’s cut-outs from his Barcode exhibition held at Red Hill in May last year. With purchases displayed and shoppers whose heads are concealed within product boxes, they condemn our rampant consumerism.

UNDERSTATED ELEGANCE

But what excites most are four new abstracts by Justus Kyalo. They are a development of the pioneering series (shown at Red Hill in March last year) that were created by pouring and brushing sulphuric acid and water onto galvanised iron sheets.

The longer the acid stays on the surface the deeper it bites and the darker the finish.

Four examples of these earlier works are on the walls — the acid staining the silver sheeting a rusty brown — but entirely new are the smaller pieces (48cm by 48cm) that explore the idea in an equally controlled and graceful manner.

Kyalo is a subtle artist who invites his audience to look into the spaces he has created — his inspiration is the Athi Plain around his studio in Kitengela — and to share with him his wonder at the simplicity, changing light and shifting forms of the landscape.

The acid burns on these later works are a dark silver rather than rust, and this and their smaller size and the simplicity of the imagery — concentric circles; a cross — gives them even greater focus.

The refinement of the gestural marks makes the imagery more telling and, like the finest sculptures, it is their understated elegance that delights.