GALLERIES: Mysteries and myths from ancient Africa

Friday November 30 2018

'From Fragmeted Faces Series' by Eltayeb Dawelbait. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


Gallery collabos are all the rage. They’re the New Big Thing on the East African art scene.

Already this year we have had two galleries from Tanzania taking space in Nairobi.

First came 23 painters from Vipaji (Talent) in Dar who exhibited canvases based on henna designs at Banana Hill art centre. That was in June.

Then earlier November and also from Dar, the Nafari (Space) Gallery took over a section of Kuona Trust Artists Collective.

Now two more collabos are centre stage.

Banana Hill has sent around 20 paintings by some of its hallmark artists to the sculptor Chelenge van Rampelberg’s studio home.


In an idyllic setting at Kitengela, overlooking the Kiserian River and surrounded by wildlife, Chelenge is hosting works (until December 20) by the Ugandans Ronnie Ogwang, Godfrey Sseguja, and Cliff Kibuuka, plus the Tanzanian Haji Chilonga and a number of Kenyans including Kivuthi Mbuno.

The other joint enterprise sees Willem Kevanaar’s Attic Art Space piggybacking a pop-up hall at Rosslyn Riviera mall on Limuru Road, that has been given for a limited period to Carol Lees’s One-Off gallery, based in the nearby Lone Tree Estate.

One-Off was offered three shop spaces to showcase art as an added attraction to increase the mall’s footprint.

If the opening of the current exhibition there (ending December 14) was anything to go by, it certainly achieved that.

More than 200 art lovers turned up to see the latest pieces by the Sudanese Eltayeb Dawelbait and Kenyan Mwini Mutuku, in a show called Boundaries.

What those boundaries could be was not entirely clear (Pushing them? Keeping well within them?) although the double-height ceiling and stark white walls gave the occasion a certain grandeur.

Eltayeb’s work is well known to all; hieratic heads based on Nubian ancestor figures, scratched, gouged, almost physically wrought from discarded wooden boards, the lines that define them scored through layers of paint, revealing the history of the matrixes and by extension something of their previous owners too.

The past made present… and in a non-threatening, familiar and accessible way.

Well known then, and also well liked. Possibly too well liked for the artist’s own good.

Although these are skillful and in many ways exciting works, they are neither provocative nor challenging.

Those who love them would congratulate the artist on his consistent vision; those who have seen versions of them many times before might suspect he is running out of ideas, although the fragmenting of the image over several joined boards suggests he still has some distance to run.

Either way, they managed to look colourful, tasteful and importantly important on the light and airy walls.

The 21 pieces by Mwini Mutuku, the artist formerly known as Andrew, do push the boundaries a little as he uses a laser to create graphic evocations of a long gone Africa.

He brings heritage to life.

Mwini became fascinated by ancient African cultures, particularly those of Egypt and what are now Mali and Ghana.

The achievements of the Egyptians in building the pyramids, for example, holds him spellbound. And in Mali the Dogon homegrown science of cosmic observations from the Bandiagara Escarpment is another source of wonder.

Mwini’s work echoes these cultures with symbols derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs and ancient Dogon and Ghanaian motifs arranged neatly across crisp boards of MDF (medium-density fibre), each a strict 40cm by 40cm and identically, minimally framed.

In the palest pinks, greens, yellows and blues with cerise as a stronger counterpoint they have an appropriately unearthly appearance. There is a vaguely metallic spaceship sheen to them.

There are no signs of creation other than the patterns on their surface, no gestural marks that indicate the resolution of some internal struggle, no indications of the daily battle of life, no signs really of any human involvement at all.

Instead they look detached, almost alien, as though they had arrived clean, seamless, shining and celestial, straight from the heavens to the walls of Rosslyn Riviera.

They radiate the creation myths and other ideas born in Africa, a continent the Ancients knew as Meritah… which explains the collective title of this series of works, Motifs from Meritah.


'From Motifs from Meritah' by Carbon Mwini. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

As the power of the sun can cause fires on Earth at a distance of some 150 million kilometres, so Mwini chose heat to create these immaculate pieces; the heat from a laser.

The raised lines that delineate each artwork are trails of carbon, a byproduct of the laser burning MDF; carbon, along with water one of the building blocks of life.

While creating these artworks, Mwini became so enamoured of the stuff that he changed his name from Andrew to Carbon. Thus: Carbon Mwini, the artist.

A name is a compass, they say, but oh, the joy of it — the possibilities for weak puns are almost endless: Carbon dating, Carbon footprint, Carbon credits, even Carbon copies — plenty to be going on with and you can have fun working out the feed lines for yourselves.

And while you do so I’ll be hard at it, working on next week’s Carbon paper.