I must be growing old, for I find myself in broad agreement with the judges of a major art competition.
The winner and second place pieces jumped to the eye; the third was more contentious, but understandable, and the ones without a prize were left out really because they ran out of prizes, not for any particular lack of ability.
How else do you explain the failure to reward Paul Maundu’s academically robust view of the Nairobi Gallery, once the old PC’s offices, in the current Manjano exhibition held at the city’s Village Market? It must have been a strong contender — such an assured touch over a strong structure is a rare enough find and should be encouraged whenever possible.
So with such skill left off the list, surely we could expect excellence from the winners. And for once we got it.
First prize of Ksh300,000 ($3,500) went to Kennedy Munala for his Mganga wa Embakasi, a witty take on a traditional Tanzanian throne. Quite how the judges squared this with the theme of Nairobi — apart from the title — I shall have to leave for them to explain one day, but nonetheless an amusing sculpture rooted solidly in East African traditions.
Hammered together from an old dining chair, with conical breasts on the backrest and a small head with a string coiffure rising cheekily from the top, it mimicked the antique high backed stools of the Nyamwezi and others, yet, while referenced to the past with its insouciant charm, it spoke readily of the wit and irreverence found in the city’s estates.
Second prize of a very useful Ksh150,000 ($1,750) went to Denis Muraguri for Rotejo (Bus Stop), a photo-montage of his favourite subject, matatus.
Actually, I write matatus but they are literally vehicles for his real subject, which is his – and our – relationship with the chaos of modern life typified by the hooting, racing, raucous, jumble of joyous thuggery matatus and their makangas represent.
Third prize of Ksh35,000 ($410) was handed to Moses Nyawanda for Koinange Street Reloading. I might have chosen another (Wambui Kamira’s beautifully controlled diptych Coffee Conversations for example, or the Maundu), but judges have opinions, as do I, and half the fun is disagreeing with them.
There were student categories too, in which first prize of Ksh50,000 ($580) went to Elsardt Amulyula for his enormous crowd scene Nai Ni Nani (Who is a Nairobian?); second prize of Ksh30,000 ( $350) to Samira Mbeyu Saidi for City Rush; and third prize of Ksh25,000 ($290) to Mark Gisiora for Waste Gate, well deserved if not for the confection of camouflage and found objects, then at least for the title punning on Westgate.
There were 175 entries for the competition, the fifth edition, whittled down this year to 62, on show for one more week.
I did not see the original entries so I cannot say if in the selection process they threw out a masterpiece. They probably did. That’s the way of judges… but at least we can say they chose well from the final cut.
It is perhaps a pity that none of the region’s artists with international reputations entered the competition. Apart from testing the judges’ nerve, it would have added lustre to the exhibition.
One such an artist can be found just up the road at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, where Beatrice Wanjiku is having a long awaited solo show.
In fact, from the seven paintings and 14 collages, you get several internationally famous artists for the one visit, for Wanjiku wears her influences with pride.
As I noted some weeks ago, Francisco Goya informs the dark horror of some of her imagery while Francis Bacon is reflected in the glittering teeth of her stooping monsters.
Her collages owe a debt to Wangeci Mutu (Ann Mwiti occasionally mines the same rich lode) as well as Bacon, but Wanjiku pays her dues and moves forward, creating a statement both important and relevant to the unending crises of our lives.
Mouths, vaginas, pathways to the safety and comfort of the womb — Wanjiku’s is a fearsome lexicon that speaks of our shifting natures and chameleon-like ability to transform.
The exhibition is entitled Beauty and Ugliness, and it is not always clear which is which.
Wanjiku uses the human figure as her metaphor for this exploration; we see the external image presented to the world, but what lays beneath?
There is beauty in a polished skull and the delicate tracery of the skeleton of a hand, but you see them only through death — and there can be ugliness in a smile.
This is an exhibition that is both exciting and provocative, and it left me with a growing sense of unease.
Perhaps this is an artist who is getting a little too close to home — which of course is exactly what real artists should do.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.