GALLERIES: Welcome back with a novel dance to the music of time…

Saturday July 11 2020

Jungle King, by Henry Mzili Mujunga. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


With online shows now a permanent part of the gallery repertoire, directors are casting around for ways to overcome obvious shortfalls in the viewing experience.

Nothing beats seeing artworks in the flesh; reproductions whether in glossy books, on postcards or the Net are at best second hand.

As well a sense of scale, texture and the power of a work’s physical presence — the way it can invade your space, reach out to you and draw you in as you stand before it, creating a direct channel between yourself and the artist and thus trigger wider considerations — so the juxtaposition of different paintings can each enrich the other.

On the Net this can be approached through a virtual tour but what that lacks is the immersion of being within the gallery space.

On-line is not all second best, however.

One obvious advantage is that you can visit exhibitions whenever you choose — at 3am if you’re having a sleepless night — nor do you have to book an appointment to hear artists discussing their work.


For by posting studio videos and interviews with them, galleries can help to put the work in context and deepen an understanding of it and its creator.

And it is all there, at the click of a mouse.

The convenience is far greater.

Good examples of this can be found currently at the websites of the One-Off ( and Circle ( art galleries in Nairobi.

At the One-Off there is a video of the UK-based painter Lisa Milroy, while the Circle is running interviews with the Sudanese painter Souad Abdelrassoul and the Kenyan Dickson Otieno.

And it is at the Circle that a prime example of the power of juxtaposition can be found.

Side by side in an adhoc hang of 20 or so paintings relating to past and current online shows are Bearer of Good News by Wallace Juma and Jungle King by Henry Mzili Mujunga.

Each resonates off the other. Where Bearer is subtle and sombre, Jungle King is a blatant riot of colours; both illuminating aspects of culture, memory and loss.

Bearer is large at 147cm by 157cm; a sonorous dark brown with mysterious images of a slightly lighter tone; of a baby seemingly swimming in the womb, encircled by a school of fish.

They hark back to Juma being told while at high school of a baby’s body being pulled from Lake Victoria, caught up in a fisherman’s net.

Yet in his hands such an horrific occurrence, apparently not uncommon at the Lake, has been transformed into an icon of ethereal beauty. The baby has been reborn as a symbol of innocence, now at peace within the harsh world that saw its destruction. The title is ironic and refers to the unfortunate truth that with the bodies come the fish.

Moving to Nairobi as a child Juma lived near the Dandora dump and regularly found magazine pages marked by fire, an appearance echoed in his technique, fumage. He smokes pieces of PVC taken from discarded billboards then scratches the darkened surface to create images that rise to the picture plane where they dance, as the novelist Anthony Powell put it, to the music of time.

The Mzili at 160cm by 90cm, shows the artist centre stage within a jungle clearing, sat beneath the hood of a salon hair dryer on which is written ASA, initials for African Space Agency. He is resting his feet on a block into which have been carved Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The jungle is Africa, the hood is Mzili’s space helmet, the hieroglyphs symbolise the continent’s cultural heritage while the initials complete his demand — that Africa must have a space agency too.

The overall high quality of the work in this exhibition has turned something thrown together in a hurry by Circle director Danda Jarolmjek and her gallery manager Don Handa into a minor triumph.

For other excellent pieces include an intricate ink drawing on Japanese washi paper by Gor Soudan, as clean and sharp as an etching; a haunting figure painting called Lost in Giving by Shabu Mwangi; a vibrant matatu print by Dennis Muraguri; a superb mixed media piece incorporating street posters by Onyis Martin; and a semi-abstract figure study in charcoal and pastels by Lemek Tompoika that interprets the kind and vengeful sides of the Maasai god, Enkai.

And do not miss Michael Soi’s cheeky view of two figures appropriately wearing masks, if little else — and there is much more besides.

Welcome back to the living world.