The first of what it is hoped will become a pioneering series of exhibitions offers fascinating indications of the direction in which this region’s art is heading.
It is of paintings and photography by 10 students and alumni of Kenyatta University’s Department of Fine Art and Design.
Held in the ground floor exhibition space of the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi, the exhibition is aimed at helping students to develop their presentation, marketing and sales skills, as well as giving them the opportunity to show their work to a wider and informed public.
The students are members of KU’s arts club, whose patron is the painter Anne Mwiti, well known on the exhibitions circuit and a lecturer in drawing, painting and multi-media at the university. It was her idea to develop the existing practice of holding regular student shows in the Thika Road Mall, not far from the university, that began around two years ago and was a welcome example of public-private co-operation in the arts.
Said Mwiti: “It is so important for our students to step out of the lecture rooms and into the real world to learn how to face up to and overcome the challenges that await them there.”
And she continued: “We hope these exhibitions will also encourage those parents and guardians who might not at first see the arts as a valid career.”
In this exhibition at the Alliance Francaise, called Creative Millennials, a welcome premium appears to be placed on drawing, composition and use of colour, and in addition free rein has been given to imagination.
However none of the artists is yet 30, and standards do vary. And that signal of inexperience—the use of nicknames and dominant signatures—is commonplace. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is not signed “Mikey” in letters 10ft high; nor is “Lenny” scrawled across the Mona Lisa. As the old adage has it: “The bigger the signature, the smaller the art.”
Two of the artists stand out: Andrew Chege and Margaret Ngigi. Both use photography; Chege to secure his imagery and Ngigi as an end in itself.
And Chege, with 20 of the 32 works on show, already appears set for success.
He photographs street scenes with his cell phone camera (which accounts for the wide angle viewpoint) and then painstakingly copies them onto canvas, which he paints in, using those plastic cards that surround SIMs instead of a palette knife.
Because his camera has released him from organising the composition with its keynote criss-cross of power lines and awkward perspectives, he is free to focus on colour, which he does with confidence and in striking combinations—lime green and pink, blue and pink, a pale orange and blue, and turquoise and khaki being typical. “I use a very personal colour choice to adjust the mood of the scene,” he told me. And he does, too.
In one of his larger works, called Breezing Through, he makes a street in Mukuru, the Nairobi slum where he has his studio, look almost like Venice with the blue road doing duty for a canal echoing a blue sky; and cars standing in for gondolas. If only.
Three paintings of soldiers point to Chege’s childhood ambitions, while in a group of small scenes he succumbs entirely to decoration with one painting presenting a pure gold sky over copper for the buildings and the road.
Slick and professional, these paintings are a commercial triumph waiting to happen; achieved by pandering to a taste that admires the gilded lily.
Hung on a pillar and in danger of being overlooked are two of the finest works in this exhibition—photographs by the KU alumnus Margaret Ngigi, who took the specialist subject in a three-month course at the Davasha School in Muthaiga.
Mysterious and allusive, each photograph presents a woman suffering from mental illness and trying to hide from life. In Mrembo (Beautiful) she is masked by a cloth torn from the dress she is wearing, while in Wrap Up the model’s head is swathed in a bandage yet crowned with roses; her attempt to engage with at least one attractive aspect of reality.
These are sensitive and beautiful works by a fine arts graduate now studying film at the United States International University Africa in Nairobi.
Elsewhere, alumnus Martin Musyoka demonstrates his skill in figure drawing with the lower half of a reclining nude—academic yet essential—while Moses Sabayi has a good shot at the back view of a seated model; the flesh tones well handled albeit the pose a trifle stiff.
Elizabeth Kiambi shows just one painting, an abstract that is a series of columns filled with intricate designs. Only a fine line separates non-figurative painting from pattern making and more images by her would have shown us on which side of that line she currently falls.
Joseph Makau, Edna Taabu, Zephaniah Lukwamba, Philip Oguya and Otto Gohole add breadth to a show that bodes well, both in its range and technical finesse.
Future exhibitions featuring ceramics and sculpture are already planned—and with 700 art students at the university at any one time, finding good quality work should be the least of their problems.