Love leads to a hunt for unknown talent

Saturday January 5 2019

Paul Onditi

Paul Onditi in the gallery he is building in Jacaranda Avenue, Lavington. Left, Lost in Thought, by Paul Onditi. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY  

By FRANK WHALLEY
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The New Year — and with it comes news of an exciting venture in the arts aimed at finding and helping new talent.

Behind it lies a love story to warm your heart.

As a young man, the self-taught artist Paul Onditi decided to leave his village — Kendu Bay near Kisumu — to follow a young lady who had become the love of his life.

Christine Omwanda went to Germany to study… so a smitten Onditi packed a bag and followed her to Frankfurt, where he decided to hone his skills by enrolling in art school while she read medicine.

As a wooing technique it proved a winner. Fourteen years later, Onditi and the now Dr Omwanda have long been man and wife and have four children.

And they now have a brand new baby and an art gallery of their own. For, in spite of the calls of family life and his busy career, Onditi never forgot the value of art education.

With a growing international reputation and prices to match — they range from $2,500 to $35,000 a painting — Onditi has decided to put something back in the pot.

Literally.

He is opening an art gallery specially to feature unknown talent — and running alongside it, a restaurant and wine bar that he hopes will finance his ambitious arts programme.

His plan is to search for new talent, which he will exhibit and nurture with a series of workshops, guest speakers who will be mostly established artists, and mentorship programmes aimed at developing their skills and marketing knowledge.

A number of guest speakers and mentors have already been lined up, including one of Onditi’s professors from Germany, Manfred Stumpf, who will teach life drawing.

The gallery and adjoining restaurant are in Jacaranda Avenue, Lavington, close to the Lavington Green shopping centre, and while the restaurant is already open the gallery is yet to be roofed.

When completed, hopefully by the end of this month, it will offer around 90 square metres of floor space and some 200 square metres of walls to show paintings, prints, sculptures, installations and video.

“We’re open to anything and everything that is new and interesting,” Onditi said.

It must have been tempting to call the complex Smokey’s, after the iconic Everyman figure that appears in many of Onditi’s paintings, but apparently the name was already taken. Instead, Onditi has settled for The Art Cabinet for his gallery and Kwawangwana — Kiswahili for the gentle people’s place — for his restaurant and wine bar, on which the success of the venture depends.

For good ideas can come at a cost. So far Onditi has spent around Ksh20 million ($200,000) on the project, with the cash coming from savings, the sale of artworks, and loans from the bank. The rent alone for gallery and restaurant is Ksh400,000 ($4,000) a month before you even start to add his outgoings.

He has a hill to climb, and therefore his inaugural exhibition is aimed at attracting maximum interest and impact with works by Peterson Kamwathi, Justus Kyalo and the sculptor Meshack Oiro, as well as some of Onditi’s own paintings.

With that out of the way, his gallery, more widely known and with an audience waiting, Onditi is hoping to begin his talent search in February.

So who is in his sights and where will the fresh new talent be found?

“I’m reaching out to the mass of untapped talent particularly in the slums,” Onditi told me. “For example, there are some artists in Korogocho I want to see.”

He added that the only criteria, apart from authentic ability, was that they must not have exhibited before and that should therefore be unknown to the art world.

That means he is open as well to people turning up at the gallery with their portfolios, and that not only underprivileged people would find a place on the walls.

“We’re happy to show people from more privileged backgrounds,” he explained, “providing they too meet the test of being both talented and unknown.”

He went on: “We want to help them to develop and bring their skills before the public; to give them that important chance.”

His venture was triggered, he said, by the chances he was given in Germany and back at home in Kenya, when as an unknown artist he followed his heart… and the girl who became his wife.