GALLERIES: Of fleeting fame and a full 15 minutes in the limelight

Friday July 03 2020

‘Carrying Gifts’ by Stephen Kasumba. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes, said Andy Warhol.

He was referring to the transient nature of fame not its ubiquity, although the remark is often taken that way.

But given the greedy maw of a 24-hour news cycle, he turned out to be right in either case — and the comment is particularly relevant in the case of artists whose work we loved.

Just over 20 years ago the Kenyan painter Chain Muhandi was all the rage. He held a definitive show at the Goethe Institut in Nairobi, following a winter trip to Germany; the white backgrounds of snowy landscapes and scenes of skiing enriching his luminous palette.

Essentially a narrative painter with a penchant for social commentary, this self-taught artist tackled current issues with caustic wit. One painting was of terrorists creeping through Customs, handing out Ksh1,000 ($10) notes as orange fires burned brightly. It was made shortly after the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar.

With his leather trousers and jaunty cap, Muhandi was a bit of a rock star …before quietly dropping out of sight.


He has not exhibited in East Africa for more than 20 years, apart from two paintings offered in the Circle art auctions and the occasional piece shown with his mates at the old Ngeche village hall.

Then there is King Dodge, one of the founders of the Ngeche Arts Association, also rarely seen these days, as is the legendary outsider Coconut Charlie of Lamu.

Another blast from the past made a welcome reappearance at this year’s Circle auction, however; Stephen Kasumba, of Kampala.

His Carrying Gifts was painted 20 years ago and was being offered by a private collector through the Red Hill Art Gallery. It failed to sell but has now reappeared at Red Hill in the current exhibition of highlights from the 450-strong private collection of the gallery owners, Hellmuth Rossler and Erica Munsch.

A decorative piece and large at 132cm by 100cm, it shows three figures each with a gift on their head; a cockerel, what could be a cat and a fish.

Painted in a rich combination of succulent reds, greens and off-white, it struck me at first as a retelling of the Nativity, except that far from being Wise Men, all are clearly women.

I suspect the work is based on a Buganda legend — one of the artist’s constant themes — although I know not which one.

Kasumba exhibited internationally and in the early nineties won an art prize that sent him to France. In 2001 he took part in the Thupelo workshop in South Africa but then simply stopped painting.

However, buoyed by his presence at auction this year and the successful sale of one of his early works the previous year, he has reportedly taken up his brushes again and is back on the Ugandan scene.

Elsewhere in the gallery is a delightful stained glass panel of a flying bird, by Nani Croze, and an interesting group of early works by Justus Kyalo. Painted in 1997 when he was moving from the figurative towards abstraction, one shows a dancer swirling among blocks of strong colour and bounds with energy. Four small studies from the same time are shown on a table, while on the wall hang three of Kyalo’s more recent calm and authoritative abstracts.

A complex canvas by Ahmed Abushariaa shouts clever and professional, while three matatu prints by Dennis Muraguri invite comparisons of emotional impact; they are from the same block in two different colourways with one black pull.

Two of Peter Walala’s assemblages of stitched fashion labels (at least 1,500 of them in each piece) satirise the power of consumerism — intelligent and witty works — while Annabelle Wanjiku, Zacharia Mbutha, Chelenge Van Rampelberg and Patrick Kayako are also represented with solid examples of their practice.

Kayako is another lost soul… a Gallery Watatu regular from the 1990s to around 2005, he left the art scene to devote himself to other things.

There are sculptures too by Muraguri, Morris Foit and a crazy climbing column by Tom Phiri.

More highlights from the Rossler-Munsch collection can be seen on line ( and they include superb original paintings by E.S. Tingatinga, which is a good way to get your eye in before falling for one of the many fakes by the self-taught master that nowadays dog the market.

Now there’s a man who has lasted the full 15 minutes and beyond.