GALLERIES: Hidden heroes who delight and warn

Saturday July 20 2019

Warriors l, by Guillaume Bonn.

'Warriors l' by Guillaume Bonn. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

FRANK WHALLEY
By FRANK WHALLEY
More by this Author

Unnamed heroes of the war against elephant and rhino poaching are a cleverly concealed delight in a current exhibition.

Five life-size photographs of heavily armed and camouflaged game rangers are tucked away in a side room and have an unexpected impact as you turn the corner and are confronted by them.

They form almost an afterthought to the run of 28 photographs that relate to the title of the exhibition—a nostalgic travelogue called From Maputo to Mogadishu. Yet the rangers are by far the most interesting and involving part of the entire show, at the Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi.

One of them, reproduced here and called Warriors 1, has been seen at the Circle before, in the 2016 exhibition Frontiers of the Present, but the rest were new to me.

All the photographs were taken by Guillaume Bonn, with the game rangers isolated on plain white backgrounds, and photographed moments before setting out on night patrol.

They are Bonn’s tribute to the force of men and women who risk their own lives every day to protect and save Kenya’s wildlife.

The rest of Bonn’s exhibition is a record of journeys he made along the East African coast to document how things are now, shaped by the past and successive colonial invasions, before the rich melding of cultures and their imprints on the towns and landscapes vanish in the face of war, habitat destruction and the effects of globalisation.

All are recent reprints taken from Bonn’s book Mosquito Coast.

As you would expect from a professional photographer with his pedigree (he has worked for the New York Times and Vanity Fair, won a glittering array of awards and authored five books) they are well composed, sharply in focus and attempt to show us things we may not have noticed left to ourselves.

Thus, the stunningly beautiful pair of semi-circular steps down to the water’s edge from a house in Lamu; the cool interior of a house at Malindi; the security van partly hidden behind a gnarled old tree trunk in Mombasa.

All excellent work — but it was the rangers and their implied warning about the continuing threat to our wildlife who kept drawing me back to the anteroom.

Across the city, preparations are well under way for the opening of what is believed to be Nairobi’s first sculpture garden.

Covering around one hectare, it has been carved out of the valley below the One-Off Art Gallery run by Carol Lees.

The works can be viewed either freestanding within paved areas or mounted on a series of plinths placed along a two-kilometre trail that winds through a succession of planted garden and rest areas.

The first exhibition, to be curated by the furniture maker and collector Marc Van Rampelberg, will open on August 31, with an afternoon viewing and early evening party and will be of more than 25 works, all by Kenyan-based artists.

They are slated to include Peterson Kamwathi, Peter Ngugi, Irene Wanjiru and Peter Kenyanya, who is exhibiting a 2.5 metre granite sculpture of a woman warrior that took 15 people over eight hours to install.

The show will be backed up by exhibitions of sculpture in the main Loft and Stables galleries overlooking the garden, and in the gallery’s satellite space at Rosslyn Riviera Mall — around 100 pieces in all.

Said Lees: “We’re very excited to be focusing on sculpture, and the garden will become a permanent open air space with a frequently changing display.”

And she added: “For too long sculpture seems to have been seen as the poor relation of the visual arts, yet it is as dynamic and challenging as all the other branches. The garden shows our determination to give it the place it deserves.”

In Rwanda, this is an important time too for the painter and poet Ingabire Greta, who is holding her first solo exhibition.

'Portrait head' by Ingabire Greta. PHOTO |

'Portrait head' by Ingabire Greta. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Called Spoken Art, it is of 14 large portrait heads that, forceful and confident, are underpinned by a sound grasp of drawing.

“They are based on feelings, stereotypes and breaking silences,” Greta explained.

Her paintings can be seen at the crisp Innovation Village in Kigali, near the American embassy.

Aged 21 — young for a solo show — Greta trained at the country’s only tertiary art school, the Ecole d’art de Nyundo in the west of Rwanda before joining the GAMA arts foundation, based in Kigali.

The title of her exhibition, Spoken Art, is a play upon the artist’s other great interest — spoken word poetry. Greta is a regular performer at poetry slam competitions, where poets read out their work and are judged by a randomly chosen panel.

As a painter, she first came to notice last year, taking part in a group show celebrating international women’s month in Kigali, organised by the NGO Kurema, Kurera, Kwiga (To create, to see, to learn).

It is run by Judith Kaine, who in 2017 invited the artist known only as Roa to paint a series of gigantic murals of animals and birds; the most notable being an okapi on the a wall of Okapi hotel in the Kigali suburb of Nyarugenge.