GALLERIES: Joining the 'in' crowd? that's got some form!

Saturday September 7 2019

'Family Group' by Rosemary Karuga.

'Family Group' by Rosemary Karuga. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

FRANK WHALLEY
By FRANK WHALLEY
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As exhibitions go, this one is a whopper.

Devoted to sculpture and with more than 200 pieces by over 50 artists, it is probably the most comprehensive—and inclusive—representation of modern East African sculpture ever assembled.

Spread over five halls, two courtyards, a corridor, one verandah and a new sculpture garden the show, called Form, celebrates the 25th anniversary of the One-Off Gallery at Rosslyn, Nairobi.

There is in East Africa little of the sculpture found elsewhere on the continent; of the stature of the bronze heads of Ife and Benin, nor much of the masks and votive figures of the West, Central and Southern regions.

There is however a rich tradition of chip carving seen in doorways at the Coast and in vigango, the commemorative posts of the Mijikenda.

And of course the headrests and stools of the pastoralists of this region show a tremendous awareness of sculptural form.

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Where does it come from, the sensitivity to volumes and planes, common to most societies throughout the world?

Certainly it stretches back to prehistoric times and I believe it is innate, this urge to carve, mould and construct initially in our own image.

It is an urge amply demonstrated in this sprawling exhibition and there are many excellent things to see.

Commanding attention are three big abstracts by Darshana Raju, all of which have been created from slender spindles of mvuli wood, shaped, sanded, polished and in the case of two of them, Piercings and Urchin—both in the Stables gallery at One-Off HQ—assembled like giant necklaces; reconfigured to suit the space.

Piercings, with its spikey hints of thistles, stands spotlit in a corner where the play of shadows becomes apparent while Urchin, a name that echoes those creatures’ spines, rises from its plinth and wriggles sinuously along the ceiling.

Over at the One-Off’s satellite space at the Riviera Mall stands Raju’s Whole Hole, where the white walls enhance a subtle interplay of movement and shadow. Tonal texture was achieved by scorching some surfaces with a blow torch.

Other things that took my eye included the raw integrity of a superb stone sculpture barely 23cm high of two embracing figures by Tabitha Wa Thuku.

Now better known as a painter, Wa Thuku’s first exhibited works at the Watatu Gallery in 1989 were in fact of sculpture; a practice she has maintained throughout her career.

This one, called Friends, seems to emerge effortlessly from the stone as though the artist, in common with the finest carvers, simply stripped back the material to reveal what was already within.

And then there is the terracotta family group also at the Riviera, by the First Generation artist Rosemary Karuga. It is a powerful, sensitive work and I think that charming as Karuga’s typical mosaic collages might be, the lady has missed her way.

Both the Stables and Loft galleries at the One-Off are packed with pieces and various categories emerge; masks, figures, animals and wall sculptures, among others.

Masks include those by Sebawala Sio from her aptly named Façade series; six that are untitled by Taabu Munyoki and three from a group called Solace by Wanjohi Maina.

Mention animals and those made of metal by Harrison Mburu spring to mind while wall pieces include unsettling faces and figures by Richard Kimathi, and amusing objects made from junk by Evans Ngure and Cyrus Kabiru.

There are also several ascetic panels by the late Expedito, which have a similar fascination to that of lace, admired for its intricate patterns. Those of his son, named Michael Angelo, also shown, are less subtle but richer and more vigorous.

Indoors too are figures by the pioneer sculptors Francis Nnaggenda and Edward Njenga plus carvings by the Wanjau family.

A group of three small clay figures by Peterson Kamwathi mounted on palm wood and plodding towards their destiny is shown for the first time, while Gakunju Kaigwa and Xavier Verhoest are also well represented.

Mention must be made too of Andrew McNaughton’s enormous pineapple crafted from discarded flip-flops and more than 1,000 cigarette lighters found on the beach at Watamu.

In the new sculpture garden—roughly a hectare that sweeps down from the galleries to the river—can be found the granite warrior woman by Peter Kenyanya, plus a crowned and pierced steel figure by Kamwathi, emerging from woodland (more of which in future).

There too frolic a happy host of more animals, figure carvings, glass works and other pieces all clamouring for attention beside the winding walkways.

And then there is the huge steel figure by Peter Ngugi which, with its jutting chin and eyes scanning the horizon, reminded me of those Soviet statues put up to encourage workers to even more heroic efforts in tractor production.

The collector Marc Van Rampelberg who assembled this blockbuster of a show has done his best with a brief to be inclusive but there are simply too many sculptures by too many artists to describe or even to list them all.

Inclusivity can come at a cost, as this show demonstrates from time to time, but on the flip side it also means there is usually something for everyone to enjoy—and as a primer to the region’s overall sculpture scene it is hard to imagine anything better.