Go west... it is best for art

Thursday August 1 2013

Human Sacrifice 2011 by Lilian Nabulime. Photo/Frank Whalley

Human Sacrifice 2011 by Lilian Nabulime. Photo/Frank Whalley 


It might look like a pile of broken old heads chucked into a box, but it is actually a sculptural assemblage by Lilian Nabulime, based on the lives of the Rwandan kings, all of whom are now either dead or deposed.

Here we are looking at the carved remnants of kingship in the communal coffin of history.

Nabulime, who is from Kampala, explores the politics of gender, race and disease through a visual language that also opens new insights into ethnic differences and cultural divides. Enough said.

Called Human Sacrifice 2011, it is one of the works in an exhibition called “Kingship & Kinship,” by three East African artists.

The other two taking part in this project at Uganda’s National Art Gallery in the former royal palace at Rwesero Hill, Nyanza, are the Rwandan Medard Bizimana and Peterson Kamwathi, of Kenya.

All three focus on the human body with Bizimana using metal, volcanic rock, crystals and even sawdust in portraits that explore human qualities and emotions.


Kamwathi offers a discourse on social engagement through a group of figurative sculptures that are free-standing replicas of his decisive ink drawings.

Brightly painted, they stand and talk, probably in low tones given that they are in a public gallery and possibly about the day’s events and the rising price of bread (although one should not presume.)

They may even be agreeing that, this week at least, and so far as art is concerned, west is best.

For as well as the show in Rwanda there are three Ugandans exhibiting at Banana Hill Art Gallery, to the west of Nairobi, the dancer and photographer James Mweu at the One-Off in nearby Rosslyn, and — about as far west as you can get without meeting yourself coming back — Timothy Brooke is flying the flag for Kenya in the United States.

And how I longed to see the work of Lilian Nabulime at Banana Hill. It would have given the show by her compatriots some much-needed intellectual clout.

Instead we have three artists named only as Ngula, Damulira (also spelt Ndamulila) and Tindi offering some 27 paintings lumped under the general heading of Game Limits. There is not the slightest indication of why that title should hold, or indeed what it means (big game, or games people play?) although it has to be said that some of the pictures are attractive.

There is a sureness of composition and a painterly touch about Ngula’s work, for example, that is very attractive. I particularly liked his Entertainment. It says a lot with a little and is just off-beat enough to provoke and then maintain interest.

Tindi seems to enjoy heavily outlined pattern rather more than I do, while Damulira/Ndamulila offers a sort of blurry impressionism that will offend nobody and please many.

The gallery owners recently embarked on a policy of brief exhibitions from as many parts of East Africa as possible, offering a snapshot of what is happening throughout the region.

It was a brave idea, courageous even, but has led to a number of rather uneven shows and odd groupings, as here, where the painters do not appear to be entirely in sympathy each with the other.

Down the hill then, to Rosslyn, where James Mweu, the dancer and photographer combined the two at the One-Off with some 20 photographs on the walls and regular dance performances throughout the day of the opening.

Mweu has been recording the homes of some of his friends in Kibera, often toted as Africa’s biggest slum.

The results are moving.

With an eye for a bold shape and striking colour Mweu has captured life at a level of deprivation most visitors to the show will, mercifully, never experience. Here is a battered blue armchair against a rough red painted wall, a flimsy table on which rest two TV remote controls, touchingly, leaves spraying like champagne from a wine bottle, and a cockerel and a woman sharing a dingy alleyway where washing is hung to dry.

Visceral and with a haunting beauty, this is a show to see. You have until August 21.

Timothy Brooke, that most painterly of Kenyan artists (by which I mean loose and visible brushstrokes creating volume and form, rather than a linear approach) is holding his fourth exhibition at Gleason Fine Art in Portland, Maine.

The show is called, perhaps inevitably, “Out of Africa,” which is a nice reminder that he produced a series of paintings on set at the Meryl Streep-Robert Redford vehicle that told the life of Danish author and settler Karen Blixen. All 26 paintings from that commission are permanently on show at the Norfolk Hotel, in Nairobi.

In Portland, Brooke shows oils redolent of East Africa; two lions catching a scent in Evening Breeze, a clump of iconic acacias with giraffes and zebras against harsh sunlight in Maasai Mara Wheatfields.

Brooke makes these paintings outdoors, on the spot, and they carry with them that slow burn of the sun on your back and the smack of fresh air on your face.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media company based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]