GALLERIES: Sunset that triggered a spiritual revolution

Friday January 08 2021

'Haunting'... a completed mask by Moira Bushkimani. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


One of the most interesting artists among the current crop of emerging talent is Moira Bushkimani.

Working across a wide range of media, including drawings, sculpture, found objects, paper cut-outs, photography and video, she tackles the big issues head on.

Her focus is on the animalistic nature of people; and how stripped of our faiths and the social and political apparatus most of us take for granted, we are at the mercy of our base survival needs and desires.

People as animals, pure and simple.

Her core subject came to her one evening in 2010 as she watched a particularly vivid sunset in Malaysia, where she was studying law.

For her it triggered a spiritual revolution, a moment that came to define her life.


“How can people think there is no God?” she asked herself as the sun slipped into the sea with a dramatic flare of orange, red and bronze.

And then she began to question the entire spectrum of beliefs she was brought up to value. “Everything came crashing down,” she told me.

Bushkimani, then still using the name her parents gave her, Muthoni Kimani, gave up the law and returned to Kenya where it was decided she should go to business school.

That did not last either and she quit USIU, having already left the family home in upmarket Runda and, aged 22, gone to live by herself in the Kibera slum.

Later for two years she made her home in a storeroom within a compound in Nairobi National Park, owned by the veteran politician John Keen.

Her change of name to Bushkimani reflected her time there, in the bush.

Only two subjects had really interested her while a student at the elite Braeburn School — sports and art — and it was art that she turned to as a career, studying first with Kota Otieno in his Kibera studio and then joining the Maasai Mbili artists nearby.

With Otieno she learnt to draw and to work with metal — the genesis of her continuing love of sculpture — and after some 18 months she moved across the city to Buruburu and the Brush Tu collective, with whom she began to exhibit.

Bushkimani first came to notice in 2018 with a group of sculptures, one of which incorporated a dog’s skull, at the now defunct Attic Art Space run by Willem Kevenaar.

They won critical acclaim and were followed by a pair of sculptures of fires, made from driftwood strung with beads that danced like flames, shown at the Polka Dot art gallery in Karen, Nairobi. 

The fire sculptures were an early declaration of the artist’s other main theme; an exploration of the elements among which we animals struggle to survive — earth, fire, air and water.

Currently the artist is creating masks from papier mâché moulded onto her own face — and thus an intimate expression of her personality both projected and disguised — in which she is careful to preserve some key typography that reflects nostalgia for the past coupled with a lament for what she calls, “the noise of nowadays.”

These she mounts on a structure, a skull, formed from burnt alloy beer cans and embellished with strings of beads.

Here the beads represent not fire but the bubbles that form in another essential element, water. And Bushkimani quotes the Kiswahili proverb Maji ni uhai (Water is life).

Coincidentally they do, probably unintentionally, resemble the white-faced masks of the Shiru-Punu people of Gabon that represent the spirits of male and female ancestors and are worn at funerals by dancers on stilts.

In this Bushkimani’s masks might well fulfil the artist’s belief, echoing that of the South African artist William Kentridge, that meaning can arise from the process of making.

“For me art is often an intuitive process even though I have something to express, and it is important not to overthink it,” Bushkimani explained.

Last year was in many ways a continuing disaster but, she says, “it also put a lot of things into perspective for me.”

December brought the artist’s 30th birthday, for many people a time of reflection, realisation, reappraisal and redirection.

For Bushkimani might it bring a new maturity, a settling of ideas and a new way to develop her essentially dystopic view of the world?

The signs are there with her current series of masks; inventive, questioning identity both of self and society generally and meticulously made. They have an intensity coupled with a haunting grandeur that speaks of the mystery of life.

The signs are good.