GALLERIES: Phoenix rises from ashes of RaMoMA...

Saturday December 31 2016

Left, Blue chair from Rainbow Talks - Africa, by Peter Ngugi, and right, Vanity Fair Donkey, by Ehoodi Kichapi. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY

Left, Blue chair from Rainbow Talks - Africa, by Peter Ngugi, and right, Vanity Fair Donkey, by Ehoodi Kichapi. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

Another year draws to a close and another trust is reborn.

Following the rebirth of the Kuona, now run on a daily basis by its artists, comes the news that what used to be the RaMoMA has had a change of name, a change of place and a change of trustees — and is now looking for a change of home.

RaMoMA, the Rahimtullah Museum of Modern Art, lost its gallery in Parklands, Nairobi, to a property developer in 2010. It was then to move to the refitted Rahimtullah Library in the heart of the CBD, but that move collapsed in 2013 and its collection of 120 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures was dispersed.

Now the collection has been reunited to the west of the city at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, owned by Carol Lees, doyenne of Kenyan curators who used to run the RaMoMA.

Somewhat prosaically renamed East African Visual Arts Trust, (EAVAT), its new board includes Lees, Anis Pringle who is a consultant at accountants KPMG, and the publisher Susan Githuku.

Immediate plans include an exhibition of some of the collection’s finest works at the National Museums of Kenya in the first half of the new year.

It should be a cracker, with paintings and drawings by Peterson Kamwathi, Beatrice Wanjiku, Mary Collis and Richard Kimathi, plus works by Watatu veterans Sane Wadu and Kivuthi Mbuno, and sculptures by Morris Foit and Jackson Wanjau.

“We’re excited,” said Lees, “and at last we can look forward with confidence to a bright future.”

Lees is currently showing 24 works, including paintings by three of these artists — Kamwathi, Kimathi and Wanjiku — at the One-Off in an end-of-year celebration of her gallery regulars.

But what took my eye there was an astonishing group of six small paintings of a typical plastic events chair — you see them at almost every function in East Africa — by Peter Ngugi.

Ngugi, renowned for his meticulous paintings of assorted wildlife that to me had all the appeal of table mats, must take the prize for being one of the region’s most improved painters.

In a series of exhibitions he has espoused various causes and attacked political expediency and complacency in numerous beautifully finished paintings, often embellished with wire, bottle tops, plastic cut outs and recording tapes.

Edgy, thoughtful and a flawless finisher, Ngugi here presents these six chairs, each in a different colour of the rainbow, representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender people in our society.

The point of Rainbow Talks – Africa is that the chairs are all empty. No member of these persecuted groups sits openly among us, nor does anyone occupy the chairs to hear about the need for tolerance and justice for every citizen.

Here we have six simple paintings, refulgent with intelligence, that simply ask us “Why?”

Four collages by Ngugi present imaginary portraits in which the eyes and mouths are portions of other faces… the eye sockets all contain mouths, for instance. We are being told that the eyes, our expressions, often say different things from our mouths; these are paintings that speak of the duplicity of politicians and the deceptions of communication.

They are rather unnerving, and see Ngugi moving ever more firmly into Richard Kimathi territory with acute social observation.

Kimathi himself shows three paintings, all blue; the largest, called Branded is of eight full length figures, all more or less identical and glued onto the canvas; a technique he uses frequently.

It is Kimathi’s comment on the tendency of advertising (and by implication, wider society) to shove us into convenient categories to receive consumer goods or beliefs.

In an interesting group of paintings by Florence Wangui, chicken’s heads appear grafted onto human bodies. The problem is in the execution. Her figure drawing is not yet as good as her poultry and so she resorts to a heavy unyielding line that would be more suitable to graphic art.

The weakness is magnified in her painting of a man, presumably Saint Peter, slumped awkwardly in a chair as a cockerel crows at his feet. The cockerel vibrates with vitality, but the man appears ponderous. I was left longing for that marvellous fluidity of line Wangui flashes across the paper when drawing chickens in flight.

Notable too are a beautifully structured donkey and a cow slashed onto the picture plane by Ehoodi Kichapi — the essence of the animals caught in a rowdy tangle of line and colour.

All this, and fans of Kamwathi, Wanjiku, Timothy Brooke, Peter Elungat, James Mbuthia and the sculptors Chelenge Chelangat and Harrison Mburu will also find works to delight in.

A feast — almost too much to take in at once, especially on a full post-Christmas stomach.

The show, which lasts until the middle of January, is well worth a visit… and the heartening news from RaMoMA reborn proves that 2017, in the arts at least, is starting well.

A very happy and prosperous New Year to you all!

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu an arts consultancy based in Nairobi.


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