Carvings are clear cut above the rest

Friday March 08 2019

Detail from The Religions, by Laura Vizzardi; and right, Bird, by Morris Foit. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


If the Circle art auction with its stunning sculpture by Samwel Wanjau of a woman reading whetted your appetite for more art in the round, where better to go than the Red Hill Art Gallery.

There can be found no fewer than 17 sculptures; a heady mix of classic Makonde pieces, a few modern works including one by Dennis Muraguri, plus three fine carvings by the only artist from the First Generation of Kenyans to come near to Wanjau’s talent: Morris Foit.

And surrounding it all, on the walls are wax crayon drawings by the excellent Outsider Kivuthi Mbuno, with more of them piled on a table.

An unusual exhibition, then, and a feast for those who welcome something out of the ordinary.

Foit, born Morris Njau, changed his name to honour his Czech tutor Francis Foit who introduced him to sculpture and was a constant source of help and encouragement.

Now in his seventies, Foit is still working, vigorous as ever, in his studio at Ngecha, which became known as the artists’ village, with the birth of the Ngecha Artists Association, whose members included, as well as Foit, King Dodge, Wanyu Brush, Sane and Eunice Wadu, and Chain Muhandi.


The largest of Foit’s wood carvings at the Red Hill gallery — to be found some way out of Nairobi off the road to Limuru — is of a man blowing a spiralling horn, while the other two are of his typically mischievous birds, their powerfully hooked beaks looking more ready to crack a joke than a limb.

Spontaneous and joyful pieces, made around 15 years ago, these are classic Foit carvings, making full use of the natural line of the wood and finished with a hot iron, blackening parts of the surface to add texture and depth.


For Dennis Muraguri, the shape of the uncut wood dictates the subject. Here for instance is a helmet made from the trunk of a pepper tree, the eyes demarcated with steel circles. It is from a previous exhibition of his at The Circle Art Gallery, in Nairobi, called These Aliens, and was inspired by a fantasy film.

Also sympathetic to the material are a group of six ebony carvings by the Tanzanian Dastani family; the late Simun Nyed and his sons Simon and Boniface. Their trademark style of leaving a little of the original branch as the foot of the carving on which their attenuated stick figures stand is much in evidence, as is the way their subjects shape-shift as though in a dream — in one, for example, a long and slender neck becomes a snake.

Makonde works abound, carved from ebony and noted for their intricate counterbalancing of mass and line.

Bernhard Pius, Mathias Nampoka and Hossein Anangangola offer several examples featuring shetanis (devils), chameleons and grotesque grinning faces. More to my taste was the Brancusi-like elegance of a serpentine carving of a head by the Zimbabwean Henry Munyarazi.

The choice of Mbuno’s drawings — seven on the walls, six on the table — to accompany the sculpture was inspired. Each medium complements the other.

These detailed drawings present a unique world featuring a magical union between hunter and prey — man and animal. And while some co-operation might be shown by a leopard, say, carrying a satchel, it is not always clear who is the hunter and who the prey.

In one drawing, a snake has an antelope in its jaws. Both a man and an elephant are trying to prise it free.

In another, the snake seizes another antelope while five others leap around it in a circle, like The Dancers by Matisse.

These stories unfold within landscapes of cool blues and greys, or hot cerise set against an acidulous green. These are often seen as inventions but Mbuno will tell you he saw them when he was a safari cook, and nowadays from his studio window, nestled within the switchback hills of Ukambani.

His is a virtually unchanging vision; an original talent nurtured in the soil of his homeland.


Now news from Lamu, where events organiser Achieng Andabwa has set up her own gallery in the centre of town.

Called The Courtyard, it is in Kinooni House, built in the 18th Century at the same time and in the same style as the Lamu Museum building.

Owned by French filmmaker Michel Reilhac, it originally belonged to the then governor of Lamu, an envoy of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

In keeping with the international flavour of the place, the first exhibition will be of 14 paintings by Italian artist Laura Vizzardi, whose oils and acrylics explore with strong lines and saturated hues the relationships between the country of her birth and Africa.

Typical of her paintings are The Religions, at around 70cm by 100cm and Lamu, a 50cm by 100cm canvas, both of which feature intricate compositions of slender figures, heavily beaded, wearing elaborate headdresses and densely patterned robes. They provide the perfect vehicle for the artist to demonstrate her love of sun-drenched colour resounding against a rich interplay of shape and line.

The figures, with their mysterious capes and jewel-like decoration, also pay homage to the work of a painter Vizzardi greatly admires, Austrian symbolist Gustav Klimt.

Her exhibition will open on March 13, and will run until the end of the month, to be followed by a show of ink portrait sketches of Lamu people by Neil Charles Simpson.

Hopefully sculpture will be shown as well.