Zebras share limelight with pictures of a different stripe

Friday February 26 2016

Zebra Grid by Mia Collis. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Elephants, rhinos, gorillas, whales, some types of turtles, a kind of leopard and even the scaly pangolin… all well known and on the depressing list of endangered animals.

Yet there is another whose fate is hanging in the balance; one we do not hear so much about but one quite close to home — the Grevy’s zebra.

That is the largest of all zebras, the one with narrow, intricate stripes and rounded ears fringed with hair.

Now a group of artists and animal lovers is trying to save the Grevy’s, which is found only in Kenya and Ethiopia.

The first job was to draw attention to its plight. And on this the group, called Zebra People, has succeeded brilliantly with a continuing exhibition of pin-sharp photographs at the National Museum of Kenya on Museum Hill, Nairobi.

Curated by Mia Collis, it features some 80 photos, many by Collis herself and a few by the Samburu and Rendille warriors who have joined the campaign to save their local species, of which only around 2,800 are left, down from 15,000 in the 1970s.


Collis provides the core group of black and white photos of the zebras, which seems entirely appropriate. However, her passion for monochrome extends to her eight portraits of the warriors, resplendent in gorgeous plumed headdresses and beads.

With their reliance on traditional ways confronting a modern, industrialised society they are possibly as endangered as the zebras they love… consistent presentation it is true, but surely they would not have lost their dignity in colour?

Nonetheless, here is art serving the deserving and doing so brilliantly.

Another sharply presented exhibition can be seen across the city, at the Sankara Hotel in Westlands.

With sunlight filtering through a glazed roof, the second floor atrium is becoming one of Nairobi’s more interesting art spaces. It is spacious and airy with comfy sofas and you can really get back from the works to view them properly.

Forty four paintings, drawings and sculptures by 11 artists make up the exhibition Recent Works, presented by Carol Lees of the One-Off Gallery.

Many of the usual suspects, as they say, are well represented.

Peterson Kamwathi shows a suite of 11 pastel and charcoal drawings from his series dealing with migration. Each is small, often of a single icon — a beach ball, a watchtower, a boat — and eloquently describes the arrivals of migrants on foreign shores. All is not sunshine however. Groups of disconsolate men, their shoulders hunched, huddle near gaily coloured beach umbrellas.

Peter Ngugi continues his examination of corruption with more of his cut-outs; this time of figures overlaying smashed tin mugs representing chai. Elsewhere men transformed into marabou storks comb the dump.

Timothy Brook shows two paintings, Kipsang Lugga, a pared down desert scene and Lang’ata Road, with traditional herdsmen caught up in traffic — Africa in transition — while Beatrice Wanjiku continues to flay the soul with two paintings from her powerful Straitjackets series. They interrogate the horror of confinement both physical and metaphorical.

Ehoodi Kichape brings us back to earth with a painting called Revised Edition Vol 5 that ridicules the pomposity of artists and writers who give long and important sounding titles to their works. In it, a typical grinning skull looks on from a milky white colour field counterbalanced by a maroon and black block that bears scribbled notes and medical records.

Three other vigorous paintings by this artist explode on easels in the centre of the atrium.

The six other artists in this taut show are the painters Anthony Okello, Richard Kimathi, James Mbuthia and Peter Elungat and the sculptors Chelenge Van Rampelberg and Harrison Mburu.

None should be overlooked and although I care not for Elungat’s fairy women, bathed in syrupy faux-medieval nostalgia, I have to admit his skill in creating them, while rather snobbishly regretting their popularity.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.