Mythology told in Kisii soapstone

Sunday February 25 2018

Parents Welcome and right, Peace T Day Time, by Elkana Ong’esa. PHOTOS | KARI MUTU | NMG

Parents Welcome and right, Peace T Day Time, by Elkana Ong’esa. PHOTOS | KARI MUTU | NMG 

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Veteran stone carver Elkana Ong’esa is known for producing colossal statues.

His monolithic Bird of Peace carving has graced the lawns of the Unesco headquarters in Paris since 1976. An equally large elephant carving sits forlornly at the front of the Nairobi National Museum.

It was supposed to be the centrepiece of Kenya’s stand at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the US in 2014. But it never left the country because of mismanagement by government authorities.

Ong’esa is just as skilled at creating modest-sized pieces. A collection of his small stone sculptures is on display at the Nairobi Gallery. They are made from Kisii soapstone, a volcanic rock whose dense but soft consistency and variety of colours make it attractive for stone carving.

In this exhibition, Ong’esa’s subjects are everyday animals and characters from Kisii traditional mythology.

The pieces have smooth outlines, understated etchings and have been given expressive titles.

Listening Dog is the mottled brown bust of a dog’s head with one ear perked up. Wise Cats is a carved feline, its head cocked to one side, tail wrapped around its body, and a sage expression on its face.

Three animals are peeking out of a protective cover in My Shelter, and the spotted beige carving of an owl is titled Peace T Day Time.

Taking a slightly different angle is Parents Welcome, an engaging piece of two adults embracing a kneeling youngster sporting a knobbly African hairstyle. Joy is literally pouring out of their faces, bulging eyes and wide-open mouths.

Because of their size, polished surfaces and understandable themes, all the pieces would comfortably fit into any home or commercial space.

Born in 1944, Ong’esa first learned how to carve at home where his family were traditional soapstone carvers. He received formal art training at Makerere University and the University of Nairobi.

Ong’esa still lives in Kisii County in Western Kenya where he grew up. Besides being a prolific artist, he trains artisans in his home area.