ART: Quality the theme in stand-by show

Saturday August 10 2019

'Structures triptych' by Sidney Mang’ong’o.

'Structures triptych' by Sidney Mang’ong’o. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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You expect a gallery to present exhibitions that follow some theme with the pieces chosen to relate each to the other, leaving you with the feeling that you have just seen something of substance that adds that little extra to your life.

But it’s not always like that, is it? Yet when it’s not, the experience can be strangely exhilarating, like a sudden shower of rain that perks you up.

You forget about the soaking clothes and instead focus on the moment, the blessing made greater because it was so unexpected.

A case in point is a current exhibition that has no theme and no real purpose other than to fill a gap between planned shows by airing works that would otherwise still be in store.

Various Artists, it is on at the Circle Art Gallery in Lavington, Nairobi, where a glorious mix of art for its own sake, not curated into any straitjacket but left to dance on the walls, free and untrammelled, there for itself, is offered simply in the hope that someone wandering in will find something to enjoy.

There’s a lot to be said for it.


The technical name for this is a “general hang” and it is exactly that — old next to new, formally trained next to self taught, abstract next to figurative, expensive next to cheap.

The nub of it, the reason it appeals so much and why we find it so invigorating, is that it parallels our own experience of art; the way we have it at home.

I know collectors who specialise — in paintings only by African artists for instance, or works from a particular period, or movement, or subject, or in political pieces, or in drawings made by sculptors… the categories continue — but the majority of us, I suspect, have an untidy mix on our walls that reflects our changing tastes and interests as we duck and weave our way through life.

So what Various Artists reflects, almost exactly, is the way we live. We find ourselves in it and immediately feel at home.

It can be seen by appointment until August 19, when the gallery will reopen after a brief break and run until September 3.

This is a show made cohesive not by a theme but by the same thing that marks out the artworks in your house and mine — the sensibility and eye of their owner; in this case in loco parentis, the Circle director Danda Jaroljmek.

And whether these artists are formally trained or Outsiders, there is truth, integrity and honesty in their work. In a word, authenticity.

What practically hits you in the face as you walk through the door is a huge and complex cityscape by Joakim Kwaru.

He is a pupil of the hopelessly undisciplined homegrown genius Kota Otieno who founded the Maasai Mbili studio in Kibera, said to be Africa’s largest slum.

Endlessly inventive, Kota’s talent has spawned many a success story including that of Kevo Stero with his paintings based on advertising and kiosk signage and, of late, the figurative painter Anita Kavochy.

Kwaru worked for a while as Stero’s assistant and here, through the artist’s maelstrom of houses, sheds, tower blocks, clothes lines and roadways on this 165cm by 273cm canvas, a gigantic flower pushes its way towards the light...and from an artist born and still based in Kibera it would be hard to find a more optimistic and cheerful metaphor.

Other highlights include a couple of intricate ink drawings on Japanese washi paper by Gor Soudan — he has a beautifully clear, clean line — two of Longinos Nagila’s figure sculptures made from cut and folded paper and a suite of mixed media works by Sidney Mang’ong’o, one single and a triptych.

These taut abstracts reference the many new buildings springing up in Nairobi, and echo their scaffolding poles, concrete beams and the play of the planes made by walls, floors and shadows.

Enjoy too the charming collages of Rosemary Karuga, the technical heft of the Ugandan Henry Mzili Mujunga and the many acrylic wash and ink paintings of coffee pots by the Ethiopian Robel Temesgen.

Don’t miss either the small, assertive portrait of Phina, made with coloured inks on paper, by the Nigerian Wole Lagunju, which is propped up in the viewing room.

'Phina' by Wole Lagunju. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY
'Phina' by Wole Lagunju. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

In Various Artists there are, inevitably, many works among the 100 or so on show or stacked in the viewing room that I did not like.

For instance I am not a huge fan of Zachary Mbutha and Annabelle Wanjiku with their clumsy outlines and clogged, sticky brushwork, although I do rather care for Sane Wadu, at whom the same accusations could be levied.

Nor for that matter do I enjoy the faux naivety of Salah Elmur nor the flash and dash of Ahmed Abushariaa’s large, flooded drawings on paper; respected though they are.

But all of them do at least share that vital ingredient, authenticity — the hallmark that stamps them as above the commonplace.

And all of them have earned their place on the wall.