GALLERIES: Let’s down a Dawa to honour heroes who bring us the news

Saturday May 08 2021

Writing about art is a fairly safe business. Sure there is always the chance that I’ll end up foolishly assigning the Mona Lisa to Raphael and once I walked too close to an easel and got paint on my shirt. My wife was displeased.

But the odd brickbat is nothing compared with the fate of those African journalists who bring you the news, particularly those who specialise in politics, who are bombed, shot, kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered. Many are jailed and disappear.

The stories of 16 of these heroic souls have been gathered in a book by Joseph Odindo, the founding editor of this newspaper.

Titled Hounded: African journalists in Exile, and published by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, it has the excitement of a thriller and tells of midnight meetings, secret talks with rebel leaders, exploding helicopters and in one illuminating passage, of extraordinary kindness shown to an exiled editor by President Moi’s hardman Nicholas Biwott.

These tales of fearless men and women are worth remembering the next time you pick up a paper. So let’s raise a glass to them. And what could be better than a glass of East Africa’s favourite cocktail, a Dawa?

Around 25 paintings of the Dawa — tempting mix of vodka, lime juice and honey — adorn the walls of the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi, where Lisa Milroy is one of three artists with solo exhibitions, running concurrently.


Breathtaking tutorial

Milroy, renowned for the painstaking, repetitive detail with which she projects the uncommon beauty of the commonplace, here demonstrates her formidable skills with a breathtaking tutorial in how to paint glass — its facets, density, weight, refractions and patterns — in her Dawa series massed mostly on one wall; their variety of shapes and combinations of garnishes a refreshment both for jaded eyes and palettes.

Elsewhere, she shows seven paintings of kikois plus eight distanced views of Mt Kenya and five close-ups of the twin peaks of Nelion and Batian, their craggy majesty wreathed in mist.

While Milroy’s treatment of glass is exemplary and her handling of mist an object lesson in painting practice, her distanced views of Mt Kenya present an icon that is strangely stiff.

It is as though the mountain is being meticulously picked apart, examined like some creature laid out on a slab… and although all its bits are intact, it breathes no more. Like Monty Python’s famed Norwegian Blue parrot, it has dropped off its perch, is now an ex-mountain, dead, extinct, and passed on to join the choir celestial.

In an adjoining gallery, Wambui Kamiru Collymore examines the story of the South African Sara Baartman, shipped to England in 1810 by her employer and exhibited on stage and at country fairs as a specimen to be poked and prodded.

Collymore’s four mixed media pieces highlight the use of the female black body to radiate racist perspectives.

In the Loft Gallery, Thom Ogonga shows 15 drawings in charcoal and pastels from 2014-15 when he moved to Lower Kabete, a Nairobi suburb.

They are of, “the daily happenings of the space I live in” and feature people he came across in the village and its clubs.

What is striking is how little his subject matter or treatment of it have changed over the years. Perhaps known best for bold woodcuts, his figures have the same thick swooping outlines, same eyes closed in the half-moons of people looking imperturbably within and the same limited range of poses. However, the drawings offer a startling vibrancy in his sparing use of colour but altogether intense and hues rich and resonant.

Meanwhile, a recent on-line auction at the One-Off realised $45,500, of which $18,200 was given to the TNR Trust for its anti-rabies drive. The TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) charity is part of the pan-African drive to eliminate rabies by 2030. Around 2,000 people, mostly children, die of rabies in Kenya each year.

Some of the 160 worldwide bidders seem to have caught auction fever with a few pieces going for far more than they would have cost in the gallery.

I’ll join the artists and the charity in downing a Dawa to that…

A Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos portrait, priced at $2,800 went for $3,120 while two superb etchings of seated figures by Peterson Kamwathi made $1,640 and $1,010, compared with a gallery guide of $820 each.

And then there was the Peter Ngugi priced at $1,200 that went under the hammer for $2,700.