ART: The veteran wizard of stone returns

Friday March 20 2020

'Leopard' by Elkana Ongesa. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG


Veteran stone sculptor Elkana Ongesa comes from a long lineage of carvers in Kisii, a region in western Kenya famous for its soapstone quarries.

Ongesa is currently exhibiting at the Nairobi Gallery in a show titled The Wizard of Kenya Stone Sculpture. The show is curated by Alan Donovan.

Ongesa uses both hand and electric tools, and works with various stones including soapstone, basalt and Kisii granite.

Elegant elephants with raised tusks have been made from speckled pink soapstone. Abstract statues of mottled soapstone birds are polished to a smooth satiny finish.

A figurine titled Leopard is made from black Kisii soapstone with small incisions all over it to form white spots. He chiselled a beautiful life-sized owl called Hong Kong out of softwood. The owl stares at you intently from under hooded eyes.

Ongesa’s carvings are not overly intricate and there is an understated attractiveness to this minimalistic style. A long piece of dark basalt stone has been crafted into The Crow, a tall, slender semi-abstract bird with its beak pointing skyward. By chipping off the black top layer to reveal the lighter inner stone, Ongesa has recreated the white chest of a pied crow.


Perhaps the most famous piece by Ongesa is the monolithic Bird of Peace statue at the Unesco headquarters in Paris since 1976.

Away from nature, the carving Fallen Hero captured my eye. It is a yellow soapstone human figure lying almost prostrate with a crestfallen look on his face. TheSupplicant is a slender female figure of pink soapstone with her clasped hands raised up.

Ongesa, 76, has been crafting for more than 40 years yet his creations remain fresh. The Wizard continues until June 2020.

Besides stone works, there are wooden statues on display. A jacaranda tree log was carved into a piece with two interconnected individuals. Called Our Wealth, the statue suggests that we need one another for healthy, abundant living.