GALLERIES: A little sidestep for anniversary waltz

Saturday June 17 2017

Limuru Market, by Leonard Ngure. PHOTO | FRANK

Limuru Market, by Leonard Ngure. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY  

By Frank Whalley

It’s good to dance a little sidestep now and then.

So whenever I’m in danger of taking the weightiness of art as a window on the soul just a mite too seriously, a trip to Banana Hill Art Gallery is a must.

There, wildly painted cockerels crow, impossible women sway on the walls and wild beasts cavort among the racks.

Landscapes stream with light while canvases full of folk going about their business in our usual disorderly fashion reflect the merry chaos of our lives.
The sheer joy of it is the perfect antidote to all our ills. Good for the soul, as well.

And many must agree with me because the gallery, run by the artists Shine Tani and his wife Rahab, has just notched up its 26th year, making it the area’s longest lasting gallery apart from Elimo Njau’s Paa ya Paa.

To celebrate the anniversary, Shine and Rahab invited 21 artists from five East African countries to exhibit, reinforcing their aim of showing art from across the region.

Art from the region.

Banana Hill has long been a home from home for Ugandans, and 14 of the 30 paintings on show are from that country. Kenya has 11, South Sudan and Tanzania two apiece and Ethiopia just one — a semi-abstract piece called Gossip, by Negga Yilmo, in which hints of figures meld in shades of red and orange, accented with blue.

Ronex Ahimbisibwe, Ronnie Ogwang and David Kigozi are Ugandans popular with Banana gallery-goers, as is Jjuuko Hoods who offers a typically busy Market Day.

Realism, as a creative style at least, seems to be alive and well in Juba with the South Sudanese Stephen Lobalu presenting two paintings, each of a slender woman, one carrying pots to market, another returning from the fields.

Haji Chilonga carries the flag for Tanzania with his schematic Sailing Boats, although I prefer his more literal offerings when the wristy brushwork is not subsumed by a stylistic tic.

And then we have the Kenyans.

Step forward Patrick Kinuthia with his Mother and Child (but if you ask — and you should — his thoughtful landscapes will appear from storage). Then there are Shine and Rahab with their joint landscape Ngurika, which looks more Rahab than Shine, plus assorted works by Vincent Shikuku, Edward Muratha and George Kimani.

Two tumultuous scenes, Dagoretti Market and Limuru Market, by Leonard Ngure, show how well he has learnt at the feet of his master, Bertiers.

So well in fact that it is tricky to tell paintings by the two artists apart. Similar subjects, of course; similar rowdy compositions and similar strong palettes.

The Bertiers narrative style is becoming a genre (his son Marvin Njoroge and one John Njuguna are also prolific students) and, while I appreciate their appeal to tourists, I hope they don’t go home with the impression that this is what Kenyan art has to offer, rather as Tanzania has come for some to mean only Tingatinga.

Something new

Yes, in the right mood Bertiers and his followers can be fun — plenty to see and something new at every glance — and allusions to Bruegel, Lowry and to Hogarth’s Gin Lane etchings are inevitable, but there is also something patronising about these conversation pieces plus an occasional distasteful misogyny, particularly in the bar room scenes.

If you want a painting by an outsider artist with an original vision there are two large works on the wall by the meticulous Kivuthi Mbunu, who along with Ancent Soi is the most distinctive of the ex-Watatu Gallery lot.

His unique take on life among the Akamba, in which fantasy wildlife competes with the villagers in front of wild, flaring landscapes, have won worldwide acclaim.

So duty over, the exhibition reviewed, the real fun begins.

Fun

For it is among the 2,000-plus paintings and drawings in the storerooms, or propped on the floor and in the racks that line the walls of this cavernous gallery, that inexpensive treasures can be found.

On this visit, they included a dazzling suite of 13 small oils on cardboard of cockerels by the Ugandan Andrew Arim.

Cockerel 2, by Andrew Arim. PHOT | FRANK

Cockerel 2, by Andrew Arim. PHOT | FRANK WHALLEY

Perky, alert and shimmering, they beg to be bought — and at only $50 a piece compared with up to $2,000 on the walls, I’m sure they soon will be.

Another gem was a flying bird (also $50) hammered out of mabati by George Kahihu, who lives nearby in Banana Hill.

He learnt to wield a hammer as a stone mason, and, now retired, does so to great effect making this bird and bas-reliefs of cats and ducks as well as chiselling out a range of wooden birds.

An original self-taught talent, genuine as they come — and his work is such a delight it’s worth a little dance on its own.