Travelling circus unpacks its tent

Wednesday March 27 2019

Guinea Fowl, by Elijah Ooko; and right, Untitled photograph, by Joy Maringa. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


Running an art gallery is a risky business.

Cash flow is uncertain — art sales are the first to suffer when times are hard; plus many collectors are notoriously slow to pay — and there is always the problem of sourcing and nurturing new talent.

And if that is true of even established galleries, it is not surprising that many start-ups find the going particularly tough.

The Little Art Gallery of William Ndwiga, for instance, was forced to close its Karen outlet in Nairobi in 2017, two years after opening, and this year its space in Kisumu has temporarily followed suit.

Now Ndwiga has reverted to his original model of combining being an art scout with organising pop-up exhibitions in collectors’ homes and gardens.

In Lamu, Achieng Andabwa planned the first solo exhibition for her new gallery at the historic Kinooni House in the centre of town, but soon had to move it to Shela’s Baitil Aman House, where paintings by the Italian Laura Vizzardi can be seen until the end of this month, after which the gallery is likely to be on the move again.


And in Nairobi, The Attic space, which was the first floor of Willem Kevenaar’s home in Nyari, has moved, for now, to the offices of Media HQ, above the Wasp and Sprout bistro in Loresho.

“I don’t know how long we’ll be here; I feel like a travelling circus,” Kevenaar told me.

He was speaking at the opening of his first exhibition on the site, of nine glitzy photographs on aluminium by Joy Maringa, plus eight silk screen prints by Anthony Wanjohi from his Street Vendor series, hung within the office space.

Maringa, a make-up artist skilled at changing perceptions of identities, made herself the model for her edgy close-ups of a nose and mouth decorated in disturbing ways.

From two emerging artists to three old favourites: Cartoon Joseph, Elijah Ooko and Morris Foit. They are sharing the exhibition area carved out of the first-floor car park at the Village Market in Gigiri, where Cartoon has 30 of his glowing canvases, intricate as tapestries, that offer narratives of village life, while Ooko’s 20 oil paintings are of his favourite (in fact, his only) subject — wildlife.

In this showing, Ooko seems to have gone back to his earlier model of naturalistic if simplified paintings that capture the smell of the savannah. He is particularly good at recreating the way the landscape recedes into the distance, while he remains as capable as ever of rendering the textures of fur and feathers.

Less in evidence are those paintings of his in which pure pattern took over and he became obsessed with, for instance, zigzagging zebra manes… clever, but I think they would have looked better on rugs than paintings.

My favourite was a small, jewel-like oil of a single guinea fowl, obviously painted with a thorough understanding of these ridiculous and loveable birds.

Eight wood carvings by Foit add extra excitement to a visit.


A large painting by Cartoon Joseph sold for $3,500 in the recent East African art auction, where a fierce battle between two anonymous telephone bidders pushed the price of an original work by Eduardo Said Tingatinga to just over $54,000; six times its estimate.

It is believed to be a world record price for Tingatinga at auction, and is the single highest sale price for any lot in the six auctions held so far by the Circle Art Agency of Nairobi.

Signed and dated, the painting was of an elephant eating marula fruit. It proved that the subject sells, because its companion piece by Tingatinga, of a hunter dragging a dead bird by its neck, which preceded the elephant to the block, was knocked down for $6,457, barely beating its low estimate of $6,000.

Other lots that did well were a small watercolour head by Nigerian artist Wole Lagunju that went for $3,052 — roughly four times its high estimate, but in line with his current gallery prices — which suggests that the seven enthusiastic bidders were attracted by the modest estimate.

Another success was the delightful wooden sculpture of a woman reading, by the Kenyan Samwel Wanjau. Expected to sell at around $5,000 at best, it was knocked down after a short, sharp battle, for $8,452.

Samson “Xenon” Ssenkaaba’s menacing Matoke Farmer realised $14,088, 40 percent more than this artist’s gallery prices and well above Circle’s highest estimate of $6,600.

Altogether 90 percent of the 59 lots sold — disappointments included the withdrawals of a Jak Katarikawe, a Kivuthi Mbuno and a Rashid Diab — and in total the sale realised $300,000; more than $50,000 over the previous highest figure for a Circle auction, that of 2017.

When writing about auctions and the secondary market I always think of the Impressionist Edgar Degas, who on being asked how he felt about a painting he sold cheaply that was then resold years later for 50 times the amount, said, “I feel like the horse when the jockey gets the prize.”