East, West, which is best? — the question posed by a forthcoming exhibition. It celebrates the arts of East and West Africa, two regions that while in many ways similar seem to have little to do with each other.
Take Kenya and Nigeria: Both on the same continent; both artificial states, created and colonised by the British; both with rich and varied cultural histories; both healthy democracies; both reasonably prosperous.
It is true that Kenyans enjoy Nollywod movies, Nigerian music and literature, while the women admire their sisters’ dress sense and style. On their part the forthright Nigerians like Kenya’s more orderly society, respect the beauty of the countryside and love the wildlife.
Yet in spite of all these positive things, how often does one lot talk to the other? Very rarely is my guess.
It might be more constructive therefore if instead of asking which is best, we focused on the possibilities that could unite us in friendship and trust.
And for sure that is the attitude taken by the joint curators of an intriguing new show.
They want to examine what if any cross-cultural influences there are, and how the regions could develop artistically, learning each from the other and perhaps joining forces from time to time in celebrations of their separate identities, each enriching the other.
The exhibition, somewhat clumsily called ETWA — East To West Africa will show around 120 works. Paintings, drawings and installations will be on two floors of the main National Museum building on Museum Hill, Nairobi, with sculptures displayed around the compound.
The three-month show, which opens in April, will be supported by a series of workshops at the city’s Kuona Trust, aimed at improving dialogue as well as exchanging skills (marketing and technical) between East and West African artists.
The West is being curated by Tosin O Rotimi who runs the Iroke Art Consultancy (iroke seeds are very small but produce a gigantic tree) based in Loresho, Nairobi. Born in Lagos, Rotimi studied in the UK, ending up with an MA from the School of African and Oriental Studies.
At first sight the artists Rotimi champion seem to me to be overly commercial, with the accent on illustrative paintings typified by an over reliance on pattern and picture surfaces enriched (or desecrated, depending on your taste) by gold and silver relief.
Yet leavening her selection, I saw a typically intricate painting by Prince Twins Seven Seven, one of the most established Nigerian artists. The descendant of a Yoruba king, he was the sole survivor of seven sets of twins and died in 2011, aged only 67.
Also on show at Iroko was the painting Smiles from Heaven by Diseye Tantua, that spoke with the clarity of a comic strip. There were also a couple of confident pen drawings by Olajumoke Lateef, still a student I was told.
The trouble with West African art is that many of the big names are so very big (Nigerian El Anatsui with tinfoil cloths that drape buildings and Romuald Hazoume of Benin with his slave ships made of plastic debes) that they are unlikely to send work to Nairobi, if only because of the cost of insuring it, while the little names, although available, tend to be exactly that — little.
I would love to be proved wrong and see the curators pull off a coup, as both El Anatsui and Hazoume have been invited.
Presenting the selection from East Africa is the museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Lydia Galavu.
More than 50 works from the East will be on show and they are expected to include choice pieces by the Kenyans Magdalene Odundo, Sane Wadu, and Justus Kyalo while from Uganda there will be Jak Katarikawe and Fred Mutebi, and from Tanzania Haji Chilanga.
Can’t wait? Well, of the Nigerian sculptors, Phillips Nzeka can be seen currently at the Kuona Trust Arts Centre and a one-man exhibition of his will be held at the Alliance Francaise in mid-February.
You can see some of the best work from the East at the One-Off in Rosslyn.
Their gallery artists include Peterson Kamwathi, Jesse Ng’ang’a, Michael Soi, Beatrice Wanjiku and Richard Kimathi.
A newcomer among the good and the great is Florence Wangui, whose talent has already attracted the interest of serious collectors.
One-Off owner Carol Lees has offered Wangui her first solo show. It is slated for September but if you want to see what all the excitement is about, several advance works have already arrived.
They include a convincing chalk drawing of a chicken, which like a young teenager is at one moment dashing about and the next gangling and awkward, unsure of each step on feet that have suddenly grown too big to control. Here it is, stepping unsteadily down the paper.
Wangui’s chicken has scaly legs supporting a gawky body still covered in down, beneath which you could feel growing muscle sliding over bone.
This is meticulous drawing — accurate and incisive. It tells us exactly what it must be like to be a chicken.
If it were human, this one would be wearing a baseball cap back to front and listening to an i-Pod, annoying everyone with the audio hiss.
A group of large charcoals of hens makes up her suite. Darting eyes, hard feathers… listen hard and hear them cluck their disapproval.
The theme of chickens continues, bizarrely, with a huge painting by Jesse Ng’ang’a called A Goat and a Chicken.
The chicken, drawn at the bottom left corner of the picture with a white oil stick on a black background has been executed with childlike simplicity and acts as a fulcrum on which the painting turns.
It helps to know that for Ng’ang’a, domestic animals represent the plight of humanity. Just as we take everything from animals — meat, blood, sinews, bones milk and eggs — so the environment and social pressures take everything from us.
The central blue cleft that separates the green colour fields of this work includes a human head while an outline figure stands high to the right, a counterpoint to the chicken. The goat is on the left, quite literally on the side of the animals.
Among other excellent things to be seen at the One-Off is a group of 11 charcoal and coloured chalk drawings by Kamwathi.
Cut out and laid on white wove paper, these single figures are studies for his series Peri-Urban Encounters.
These see the artist, who lives and works in Kiambu on the fringe of the capital, examining his neighbourhood, which is neither city nor countryside.
By isolating the studies, each alone on its white background, he has placed them like specimens on a petrie dish and offers us an intense yet detached observation of their fashions, styles and mannerisms.
What he has not drawn, so far at least, are chickens.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]