Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means roughly “a reason for being,” or to put it another way, “a reason to jump out of bed each morning” (in my case for breakfast, but be that as it may.)
It is a philosophy that originated on the island of Okinawa, believed to be home to the largest number of centenarians in the world.
As a change from Ozone Therapy and Rebirthing, it is enjoying a bit of a revival right now with charts, diagrams, books and key words like “mission,” “passion,” “significado” (no, I don’t know, either) and centres dedicated to it.
“At Ikigai, we cultivate an environment where meaningful human interactions are nurtured,” burbles its website.
And the man who wrote a book about it, one Hector Garcia, explains: “Your ikigai is at the intersection of what you are good at and what you love doing.”
The idea is alive and kicking in East Africa too, where already a couple of ikigai centres have sprung up in Nairobi. They offer workspace for hire, plus a café and pleasant gardens in which to work or relax. Even both.
And one of them has added to the general air of wellbeing by hosting a pop up exhibition by three artists—Sungi Mlengeya from Tanzania, and Elias Mung’ora and Anne Mwiti from Kenya.
Together they are showing some 21 paintings at the ikigai workspace, in a rambling Mediterranean style villa in Spring Valley, at the end of General Mathenge Road.
It has been organised by Lara Ray of the Polka Dot gallery, late of Karen but now, like the boll weevil, looking for a home.
At Ikigai, the Polka Dot has assembled an interesting cross section of work by the established (Mwiti) rapidly rising (Mung’ora) and Nairobi newcomer (Mlengeya).
Known for an award winning abstract painting, then for pastiches of children’s art, Mwiti more recently produced vigorous, painterly portraits and a group of landscapes that offered a dynamic insight into her Meru homeland.
Next came pages from her sketchbooks following a visit to Egypt, and a number of small wristy paintings with a hot palette reflecting a trip on the Nile.
Mwiti has now changed styles again, this time presenting nine acrylic works—quite small at around 20cm by 15cms each—calmer and more deliberate, in which design and the narrative take precedence.
They follow time spent as a visitor to Lang’ata Women’s Prison, which led her to ponder on the nature of freedom: Can the spirit soar beyond the walls, and are those outside really any more free than those within?
In these paintings, the colours are delicate and the images composed with great care; the overall effect making them seem larger than their actual size.
Elias Mung’ora, who like Mwiti is a Polka Dot regular, finds joy in urban chaos.
His realist style emphasised by a love of paint and strong brushwork is ideally suited to presenting the literal street scenes in which he specialises.
With matatus and barrow boys jostling in front of Nairobi landmarks, he does not so much bring order to the chaos but at least makes it comprehensible.
An artist whose practice is built on accurate drawing, his seven paintings here have authority and there is a familiar and welcome ring to them; we know it is true because we all live it.
Sungi Mlengeya is offering five portraits of women that celebrate African womanhood.
They say that if you educate a boy you end up with an educated man, but if you educate a woman you educate a family.
Mlengeya states her mission is, “to express beauty in blackness, to bring forth pride and cement an unmovable spirit.”
With sound drawing highlighted by a restrained palette, she certainly succeeds.
Meanwhile, across the city, congratulations go to another newcomer, Austin Adika, who has just held his first solo show.
Called Fragments of the Soul, it took place in the former railway worker’s house in Nairobi’s South B that has become the HQ of Soku Studio, and it was of around 20 Expressionist paintings, mostly portraits, plus 10 wire sculptures.
The title reflected the wooden panels on which he painted, made from dozens of zig-zag strips glued together, to provide a surface that while disruptive also added depth to the works.
Adika said his show, “carried all of the bits and pieces of my human and family experiences which celebrated my pains and embraced my fears.”
Born in Changamwe, Mombasa, Adika has 17 brothers and sisters so it can be assumed that he knows as much about families as most of us.
Dark and emotional, these panels did make me hope that he finds time now and then to lighten up a little.
Even Van Gogh, that model for tortured artists everywhere, found space in his life for sunflowers and cornfields, although unfortunately it is also true that in his case the golden corn was shadowed by crows. Probably he had just messed up his ikigai.