Lest we forget the amazing artists who were truly the pioneers of Kenya’s visual arts scene, the Nairobi Gallery has established a hall dedicated to Pioneer Artists.
There are other “pioneers” who came before Elkana Ong’esa and Expedito Mwebe whose artworks have been on display from March 29 at the Gallery. For instance, Elimo Njau, Gregory Maloba and Samwel Wanjau all came before almost every one of the veteran artists identified by Alan Donovan who curates the Nairobi Gallery and who will also take his Pioneer Artists collection to Washington, DC in 2016.
That collection will include Magdalene Odundo, Ancent Soi, Francis Nnaggenda, Jak Katarikawe and John Odoch Ameny as well as Expedito and Elkana.
Nonetheless, one can be grateful for Donovan’s dedication to amplifying the artistry and creativity of “early” East African sculptors, painters and ceramists. He has already staged shows for Ancent Soi and Jak Katarikawe.
The irony of the Nairobi Gallery exhibition is that what is being showcased in the Pioneer Hall reveals only a fraction of the works produced by the two headlined pioneers who first came to the attention of the former vice president of Kenya, Joseph Murumbi and his African Heritage business partner, Alan Donovan back in the 1970s.
The reasons are manifold, the main one being that once the two were exposed to the public – Elkana through his first one-man exhibition at African Heritage Pan African Gallery back in 1972 and Expedito through his artistic work with numerous local architects since the late 1970s – they have been in great demand both nationally and internationally.
In Elkana’s case, he’s been invited everywhere from, France to Canada, the US and China (several times). In almost every case, he’s had the opportunity to create sculptures that have remained after he was long gone. For instance, in France, his 10 feet tall Kisii stone sculpture known as the Bird of Peace stands majestically at the main entrance of the Unesco headquarters.
In China, another 10 foot tall sculpture (this one made out of bronze) entitled Her Mother, graces the World Sculpture Park in Changchun.
But ever since he attended his first international Sculpture Symposium in Changchun in 2006, Elkana dreamed of establishing his own International Sculpture Symposium in Kisii. His dream was realised in 2012 when Unesco sponsored the first such symposium to which sculptors came from all over world. In all, they have come all the way from Bulgaria, China, Egypt, India, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and of course, Kenya.
Late last year, Elkana organised the third symposium in Kisii. A number of the stone sculptures produced during that month-long exercise will be on show in the Nairobi Gallery from March 29 through mid-August.
Elkana’s sculptures will also be there standing outside in the front of the gallery facing Uhuru Highway. Ideally, the gallery will give bus tours around the city to see some of his other sculptures, one of which is at the Nairobi National Museum (the one which was meant to go to the Smithsonian Folk Festival in the US last June), another at Nairobi City Park and another on the front lawn of the American embassy in Gigiri.
Expedito’s most ambitious works are scattered all over Nairobi, but additionally, they are on permanent display all around East Africa, especially in the Serena Hotels, where his exquisitely carved wood relief panels cover whole walls or stand as double doors that display all sorts of imaginative images ranging from chameleons, crested cranes and owls to mythical creatures and fecund foliage — trees, leaves and branches.
In Nairobi, his carefully carved wooden panels can be seen everywhere from the All Africa Council of Churches in Westlands to the Don Bosco Seminary in Karen to hotels like the Marble Arch (formerly Kimani Court) and the exclusive Bambara Lounge at the Nairobi Serena.
Several of Expedito’s finely filigreed wooden panels are on display at the Nairobi Gallery together with several by his talented son Michelanglo who’s been tutored by his father since he was very young.
Expedito was invited to teach at Makerere but never got around to doing so as he quickly got busy with commissioned art projects that took precedent over academia.
Back then, he frequently worked with leading architectural firms that enjoyed integrating his art into their structural designs.
He still works with architects today, although he is also conscious that art consumers want to buy his work but as they don’t own skyscrapers, banks or office blocks (the sort that Expedito used to infuse with elegant aesthetic designs), the artist also creates functional artworks such as beautifully carved bed-boards and finely crafted combs to elegant mirrors, picture frames and semi-abstract sculptures like the one that stands near the reception at the Nairobi Serena Hotel.
The one thing that Expedito and Elkana have in common apart from both being sculptors and graduating from what was then the Margaret Trowel School of Fine Art at Makerere, is that their sculptures are inside Nairobi City Park at the final resting place of Joe and Sheila Murumbi.
The Murumbi’s were fond of both artists’ works, with Joe even asking Elkana specially to create a sculpture to stand at his grave. It was Donovan who took on the task of ensuring his friend’s last wish was fulfilled. But he didn’t stop with Elkana’s work alone.
In 2010, he called the media and friends of the Murumbis to Nairobi City Park to unveil full-sized sculptures by Elkana, Expedito, John Odoch Ameny and Francis Nnaggenda, all of whose work the Murumbi’s had collected over the years.
Unfortunately, the vandalism that has ravaged the park damaged to several of the Murumbi memorial sculptures since then. Expedito and Elkana have been fortunate in this regard since their stone sculptures have been too heavy for thieves to easily carry away.
But the metal sculptures by Odoch Ameny and Nnaggenda were both badly damaged to the point where Odoch replaced the remains of his metal work with Kisii stone.
And Nnaggenda’s work has undergone major repairs. The grave now has 24 hour surveillance and all four artists’ works are still standing there.
And thanks to Donovan’s foresight, additional works by all four sculptors are part of the permanent display at Nairobi Gallery.