Leafy lanes where art branches out

Saturday February 16 2019

Hoop Dreams, by Dennis Osadebe.

Hoop Dreams, by Dennis Osadebe. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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Leafy Lavington, one of Nairobi’s salubrious western suburbs with its discreetly hidden houses and smart new malls, is rapidly developing another claim to fame — as a hotspot for the arts.

Heading the list of places to visit is the Circle Art Gallery on James Gichuru Road. Since its opening in 2015, it has won a reputation for cutting-edge shows and promoting new talent.

Shown to advantage in its minimalist space are a couple of artists new to Kenyan gallery goers; the Kenyan Evans Mbugua who lives and works in Paris, and the Nigerian Dennis Osadebe who is based in Lagos.

Although very different in styles, they are united in their choice of medium — the digital print.

It produces crisp, clean edges, bright colours and the authority we associate with mechanical reproduction. In skilled hands when using a good app — Osadebe favours Pixelmator Pro — it ensures that creative freedom will not be restricted by the mouse.

It also speeds things up, allowing users to cut and paste and drag images from frame to frame without the tedious need to redraw. Or indeed, to draw at all, for it encourages artists to lift images from elsewhere and plant them in their own work, which they can then elaborate in any way they choose.

Some would say it is cheating. Others would say the world has moved on and just as egg tempera gave way to oil and then acrylics came along, so the burnt stick gave way to silverpoint, the pencil, pastels and the brush. And now the computer mouse is another tool for innovation.

I must admit to a personal preference though; and that is for the human stain — the sensitive line, the brushstroke, the flung paint; the gestural marks that tell us the artist was alive and up to his elbows in creativity.

That said, Osadebe’s cool interiors with their Bauhaus chairs, vibrant rugs and that oh-so-sexy magazine rack (in Hoop Dreams) are a witty and sustainable comment on our aspirational lifestyles.

His compositions (there are eight of them here) with their interlocking colour fields like paper cut-outs are printed onto canvas and hang like paintings … but it would be no surprise if one suddenly winked at you.

Mbugua takes photo portraits as his starting point and then surrounds them with images from everyday life — lorries, umbrellas, braids are a few — before sandwiching his subjects between glass and perspex, celebrating their identities through reflections and myriads of painted dots. They dazzle and shimmer on the wall.

What both artists have is joie de vivre; sharing their celebrations of friendships and freedoms. Lighthearted, but perhaps deeper than you might at first think.

Evans Mbugua artwork

Cheese, by Evans Mbugua. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Art Cabinet

Nearby on Riara Road are the studios of the Kobo Trust, home to eight artists, including rising stars Lemek Tompoika, Martin Onys and David Thuku, who present regular exhibitions in the large hall adjoining the studio space.

And in the other direction, at Lavington Green on the first floor of one of the shiny new malls, is the gallery — or showroom, if you prefer — dedicated to the constructions of Kioko Mwitiki, the man who started the business of making wild animals from sheet metal welded to an armature.

You can see ones made by his copyists on many a roadside in the city — the lifesize giraffes are particularly impressive — but for work by the master a visit to the Green is essential, although you have to pay to get in.

This past week, the latest gallery in the area opened its doors… Paul Onditi’s Art Cabinet tucked away behind his Kwa Wangwana restaurant and wine garden on Jacaranda Avenue.

He plans to feature unknown talent; not even emerging artists, but those so far completely unheard of, except by their families and friends.

However, to announce the gallery’s presence Onditi kicked off with Exercises in Conversation, an exhibition of three choice drawings by Peterson Kamwathi, four paintings by himself and four constructions by Meshack Oiro, who is currently making objects and figures from welded lengths of bicycle chain. A cunningly wrought shoe balanced on its stiletto heel caught my eye.

Two of the colourful Kamwathis are from his 2016-17 Constellations and Sediment series, while the third is more recent and part of the Ebb and Flow cluster. All three deal with migration, both as a standalone subject and as a symbol of the artist’s own life journey.

Onditi’s four paintings are from his Background group, in which the supporting iconography of his Smokey series — Smokey being his Chaplinesque Everyman figure — become the focus of the work.

Smokey has left the stage, and the matrix that supported him, with its collapsed buildings, polluting factories and withered trees, now takes the spotlight.

They represent the artist’s insistence that what was once the background should now gain prominence as the roots through which his identity formed.

The palette has changed too. Gone are the familiar sharp pinks, yellows and greens on mainly dark backgrounds, to be replaced by softer pastel shades set on cream.

The exhibition, which opened last Saturday, runs until March 8, and meanwhile Onditi is continuing his search for new and previously unshown talent.

In Leafy Lavington, art is branching out.