Take a walk on the West Side... it’s wild

Monday January 17 2011

By FRANK WHALLEY

There is a whole new West Side Story emerging in Nairobi.

It is rapidly becoming part of the city that art lovers are making their own.

A drive through Parklands to Limuru Road and on ever westwards is where the interest is growing.

First stop, 2nd Parklands Avenue to pay our respects to the RaMoMA in the hope it might survive not only as the children’s art school, which is to remain open, but also as a group of galleries.

The trustees met earlier this month to consider the future of the place and it was decided the operating arm of the business, RaMoMA Ltd, would be put in mothballs.

But that still leaves the RaMoMA Trust, which owns among other things the permanent collection.

No mention was made of selling the land and buildings — surely a temptation in an area where land prices are increasing exponentially.

However one of the trustees, Lyn Fuss, was later at pains to point out that should a sale eventually become inevitable, all the proceeds would go into other charitable projects, mainly involving the arts, in Kenya.

I understand that while it is true that RaMoMA is more or less at a standstill, the possibility remains of reopening the galleries, perhaps for occasional shows in aid of worthwhile causes, or even for hire.

Ever westward and next stop is the Village Market with its two large exhibition halls, which frequently feature strong shows by local artists.

I remember with pleasure those of sculpture by Irene Wanjiru and, more recently, large canvases by Patrick Mukabi.

A little further along the road is Rosslyn, home to the One-Off gallery run by Carol Lees, former manager of the RaMoMA.

One-Off is the base for some of Kenya’s major artists, many with international reputations.

At any one time you can expect to see excellent examples by Timothy Brook, Peter Elungat, Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi, Justus Kyalo, Jesse N’gang’a, Emily Odongo and Beatrice Wanjiku, among others.

A relatively new gallery is next on the visiting list, at Ruaka.

Just before the turn off to Banana Hill and opposite the Delta petrol station is the Kilele Africa (sub-titled Contemporary Art Studio) run by a group of four artists: Cosmos Musyoka, John Ndung’u, Patricia Njeri and Alex Wainaina.

Wainaina is the one who first catches your eye. His sculptures, bent and welded from scrap metal, parade on the gallery forecourt... birds, a buffalo, a hippo’s head, a warthog or two and a giraffe.

Lifelike

Scrap metal sculpture is becoming very popular (as a glance at Ngong Road near the racecourse will confirm), but whereas the racecourse sculptures tend to be as lifelike as their creators can make them, Wainaina goes for caricature. “I try to make them more interpretive,” he says.

The Kilele Africa opened only last year and houses the artists’ studios as well as a small sales area, which also contains pieces by other painters and sculptors.

These include some small birds made out of driftwood — breathtaking little things that absolutely capture the essence of their subjects.

They are so good they transcend the normal run of craft shop works to become pieces of fine art in their own right.

One example is a seated ibis that reaches forward to stab the air with its bill, the ruffled feathers of its plump body indicated to perfection by the natural ridges of the untouched knotted wood.

The difficult thing with this type of work (with most types of work, come to think of it) is knowing when to stop. This sculptor is in complete control. Simply brilliant.

Unfortunately, the Kilele owners do not have his name, recalling only that he wandered in one day with work to sell. I hope he wanders in again, this time with his calling card.

Turning right to Banana Hill leads you up to the studio centre run by the painters Shine Tani and his wife Rahab.

I reviewed their current show, by Ash Uman and Wainaina, last week.

You can go west too, if you like to see artists at work.

The colourist Mary Collis and figure painter Fitsum Berhe both work on the west side of the city (at Kiberage and Kitisuru respectively) while Banana Hill and Ngeche villages are home to more artists than you can wave a wallet at.

They include painters Cartoon Joseph, Wanyu and Eunice Brush, Chain Muhandi, Allan Githuku, Tabitha wa Thuku and James Mbuthia and the sculptors Evanson Kang’ethe and Morris Foit, and many more besides.

So if you want art, go west. It’s wild.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]