Thursday, August 30, 2012

Willie Wambugu: 'the Artistic Anthropology of Shoes'

The Artistic Anthropology of African Shoes

By Margaretta wa Gacheru
April 2012 
Written b4 his exhibition in Brussels in August 2012

Willie Wambugu had been drawing with biros pens for as long as he can recall. But when the self-taught artist decided to take his art seriously, he thought he had to shift from pencils and pens to oil paints.
It was the Italian-born curator Samantha Ripa di Meana who convinced the young Kenyan to get back to what he does well and forget about the oils.
The consequence of her conviction was a recent exhibition of Wambugu’s drawings at Ripa di Meana’s home just off Lower Kabete Road.
Showcasing his work in her garage-turned-gallery, Ripa di Meana has only known Wambugu for a year. They met at Kuona Trust where she was giving a talk on Russian and Chinese contemporary art.
Yet in that short time, she’s not only encouraged Wambugu to stay focused on what he does best, namely meticulous drawing, not oil painting which he’d been dabbling in since he graduated from Kenya Polytechnic in communications technology.
She also encouraged him not to simply see art as a means of making fast cash by focusing solely on the tourist and expatriate art market.
“William has real talent, but if he simply paints to meet what he thinks is the current market in tourist art, he will waste his gifts,” she said, noting that his drawing are met painstakingly deliberate, detailed and delicate.
Describing Wambugu’s approach to his art as “anthropological”, Ripa di Meana has so far helped Wambugu mount two solo exhibitions. The first was late last year which she helped organize one at the Belgian Embassy. In black and white, all his drawings were singularly about locally-used hand tools, including wheelbarrow and rakes, machetes and njembes, in other words, artifacts from everyday Kenyan life. The artist sold almost all his work, just as the curator foresaw.
Wambugu’s recent Westlands show was all about locally-worn shoes.
 “Shoes say a great deal about people, especially their social status and class,” said Wambugu while standing at the entrance of the gallery/garage, presiding over two walls worth of detailed drawings of all sorts of Kenyan shoes, from sneakers, sandels, and gum boots to Nike sports shoes, putiputi, hush puppies and dress shoes made of leather-like plastic.
For Wambugu, shoes also say something about Kenya’s colonial past and the fact that shoes were rarely worn before the colonizer imported them and made them an insignia of the so-called ‘civilized’ African.
Another signifier of the colonial mission to ‘civilize the natives,’ says Wambugu was the school uniform, elements of which he drew and hung on the third garage-gallery wall. Having grown up in Nairobi and gone to schools that compelled him to wear uniforms, he’d carefully drawn everything from the socks, shorts and tie to the school brazer, dust jacket and even the school apron he wore in pre-primary. All had been mandatory, reinforcing a regime that fostered conformity, uniformity and assumed civility.
“What I appreciate about William is the way he takes a topic and interrogates it in detail. In this case, the topic is colonialism symbolized in the shape of shoes,” said Ripa di Meana who will showcase Wambugu’s art in June in her gallery in Belgium, called Roots Contemporary.
She’s already exhibited several of his drawings early this year along with works by other Kenya artists, such as Ato Malinda, James Muriuki, and Paul Onditi.
But the June exhibition will be devoted exclusively to Wambugu’s work, including not just his shoes, tools and school uniforms, but also interiors made out of cardboard which were the first clear signs the curator saw that Wambugu not only had persistence, but originality and courage to work with new media such as shipping boxes, the only materials she initially shared with him.
Subsequently, she has given him art paper from France, India and China on which to draw. She also inspired him to draw not just Kenyan shoes, but also Chinese pairs which she had collected during her years living in that region. Ripa di Meana agreed to share her shoe collection with him, “seeing that colonialism has been followed by globalization, symbolized by Chinese shoes,” she said.
What’s most fascinating about Wambugu’s shoes is that while they might seem like the most mundane of subjects to draw, still when seen in the light of an anthropological approach to indigenous culture, shoes can be speak volumes about the way Kenyans are living today.
Wambugu’s exhibition in Brussels at Roots Contemporary Gallery opens June 14th and runs the whole month.
Currently, nine pieces of of Wambugu’s inventive cardboard creations are on display at Le Rustique restaurant in Westland for the month of April.

Graffiti Artist par excellence: Swift Elegwa

By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Posted at Africa Review
August 28, 2012
Long before graffiti art made a big splash in Nairobi's city center when anonymous artists worked clandestinely to create powerful political statements attacking corrupt Members of Parliament, Swift Elegwa was beautifying Nairobi estates with his own brand of graffiti art.
Making his graffiti art 'debut' in 2002 in Jericho where he had seen there  were countless blank walls that he felt were just waiting to be touched by spray paint and his original graffiti designs, Swift has since extended his open air Eastlands 'art gallery' to include a slew of 'slum' suburbs.
Often working together with other graffiti artists including novices who he instructs, Swift has covered walls everywhere from Kayole, Kibera and Kawangware to Kariobangi and Mathare.
But he has also been prolific in Upper Hill where he first met a slew of young graffiti artists through WAPI, the British Council's initiative to give wall space and regular Saturdays for several years to so-called 'underground artists' to create their graffiti art.
From 2003 to 2006, Swift went every month to spray paint and meet up with artists known only as Bank Slave, Smokey and Uhuru with whom he has often worked  on communal art projects ever since.
One such project was a set of graffiti murals commissioned by the GoDown, which is how the graffiti portraits of everyone from Miriam Makeba and Michael Jackson to Barack Obama went up on GoDown walls.
In fact, Swift had been painting portraits of 'prominent' people long before he arrived to work at the GoDown. His mentors in portraiture had been the master matatu artists with whom he had worked when he was still a novice in the field, apprenticing at the Double M bus workshop on Outer Ring Road.
"Only the most skillful matatu artists did the portraits, which is what i had hoped to become, but then when the government banned matatu art, I had to decide what to do next. That was when i began seriously spray-painting on walls," Swift said, just shortly before he was heading off to Sweden to attend an international graffiti art conference.
In fact, Swift had already begun painting portraits of rap musicians on T-shirts, which is how he got his first '15 minutes of fame.'
"The rappers would appear in music videos wearing my T-shirts, and suddenly, everyone wanted a T-shirt like theirs," he recalled.
Not long after that, he got called by Nation TV to appear on their program, 'Art Beat'. Since then, he has been doing graffiti art for everything from product promotions to private home beautification.
But even as Swift has successfully commercialized his skills as a graffiti artist, his first calling is still to fill all the empty wall space he can find with enlightening graffiti art irrespective of the price tag his work might fetch.
That sense of calling is what compelled Swift to ask Elimo and Phillda Njau of Paa ya Paa Art Center if he could cover their blank mabati (corrugated iron) walls with graffiti art. He had visited PYP for the first time in 2011 and instantly felt an affinity for the art center..
The Njaus agreed and soon after that, Swift was spray painting bright elegant images all the way down Paa ya Paa Lane, almost to the main Ridgeway Road leading to the Windsor Hotel.
"I did it for free," said Swift when asked how much he'd charged. It was his gift to a place he felt represented the beauty his mabati wall also reflects.
Today, Swift divides his time between portrait painting (still on T-shirts) and wall art. He particularly loves working with fellow graffiti artists on projects, such as the two he organized with assistance from the Kenya Community Development Project and the Changamoto fund. The funding enabled him to go to Eastlands estates with fellow artists and start training promising young spray painters in the skills of creating graffiti art. The funding for those projects wasn’t nearly enough for Swift to get around to all the ‘slum’ estates as he had wished, especially as cans of spray paint are not cheap, and if one wants to also use air brushes (which Swift is especially fond of) those can be quite costly.
Nonetheless, once the funding was finished, Swift and his crew didn’t stop heading regularly to the ‘slums’ to scout out the diminishing numbers of blank walls. The impulse to create graffiti statements is something Swift now has in his blood!
He’s not yet 30 years old, but Swift can still be called a pioneer in graffiti art, a master of one art form that makes a lot of sense to a multitude of young Kenyans, especially those who admire and hope for the return of matatu art.

Paul Onditi: artist masters art of auto tracking

posted august 27, 2012

Preps 4 Kisumu's 1st Visual Arts Festival

posted august 23, 2012

Kenya Visual Artists Network, serving the artists or the State?

posted august 16, 2012

From Pest Fumigator to Fine Artist: Jack Kaluva

posted august 9, 2012

After5; christina's online photo magazine

Online magazine that’s a sight for sore eyes features all Kenyan and/or Kenya-resident photographers, including Melissa de Blok’s portraits, Neil Thomas’ ‘Turkana’ series and Barbara Minishi’s Fashion photos. Photo/Courtesy/Engell Andersen features all Kenyan and/or Kenya-resident photographers, including Melissa de Blok’s portraits, Neil Thomas’ ‘Turkana’ series and Barbara Minishi’s Fashion photos. Photo/Courtesy/Engell Andersen 
Posted  Thursday, July 26  2012 at  19:57

‘After five’ is often seen as the time when people get off work (i.e. in you’re in the formal economy) and let their hair down. It’s when, according to Kenyan web designer Christina Engell Anderson, they get back to the business of pursuing their primary passion, be it a sport or workout session, play rehearsal or  music lesson or some other creative exercise.

After 5 is also the name of the online magazine that Anderson started less than a year ago to celebrate Kenyan creativity and provide a digital platform for a portion of those artistic passions to be shared with a wider online public.

It was the passion of the Kenyan photographer that first attracted Anderson to design her own magazine to spotlight young visual artists like Philippa Herrmann-Ndisi, Zack Saitoti, Jimmy Chuchu (better known for his work with ‘Just a Band’), Neil Thomas and Karungari Wambugu.

Already on her sixth issue of After5, Anderson has yet to make a bundle of money from her magazine. “But that wasn’t the point of my setting up the website in the first place,” said the daughter of the award winning public relations doyen, Yolanda Tavares-Anderson.

“We wanted to see if we could create a viral effect online with the magazine,” said Christina referring to the tsunami-like effect that various YouTube videos have had (such as Justin Beiber’s rapid rise from nobody to becoming a pop star overnight via YouTube).

In fact, she’s found that Kenyans are still more inclined to pick up a newspaper than look at an online magazine, unlike media consumers in South Africa where she studied for seven years, from her first year in secondary school (at a girls boarding) through University of Cape Town where she graduated in 2007 with a triple major in Film, Media and Interactive Production. 

“They still seem to trust the print media more than online services,” said Christina who admits that changing people’s media habits is a slow process. Nonetheless, her audience is growing all the time.

“Initially we had to call up photographers and ask if we could put their images online, but now they are calling us and asking to be featured,” said the 24 year old founder of one, if not the first online magazine devoted solely to exposing the works of Kenyan photographers.

Highlighting one photographer every issue with visuals and an in-depth interview, some issues of the magazine have included as many as 21 visual artists, all of whom are either Kenya-born like Herrmann-Ndisi (whose ‘She series’ was featured in the first issue) or long-standing Kenyan residents like Neil Thomas (whose ‘Turkana series’ was the centerpiece of issue #2).

Her latest issue #6 is all about exposing the Instagram, a cutting edge online application (app) that anyone can download for free on their cell phone and take photographs of their ordinary everyday experiences.

It’s an ‘app’ that Anderson says has caught on like wildfire in the West. It has also come to Kenya where increasing numbers of amateur photographers have become what she calls “Instagrammers”, spontaneously shooting random images that catch their eye.

In a sense, the Instagram has had the viral effect that Christina had hoped after5 would. But being at the cutting edge of online culture in Kenya isn’t all that easy a place to be. It’s understandable however, given her background, both academic and experiential.

First of all, she returned to Kenya after living in a society where a good percentage of the population goes online regularly for everything from shopping to researching products, people, places and practical information of all sorts. She sees Kenyans moving in this direction gradually, but by her providing online services and enabling increasing numbers of Kenyans access to information, she hopes to hasten people’s interacting online.

Second, she interned at a South African online visual arts magazine called One Small Seed while still an undergraduate in Cape Town and quickly felt she had found her calling. “It was such a creative atmosphere to work in that I felt that one day, I would love to work in Kenya in an environment just as exciting and stimulating as I found at One Small Seed,” said Christina who, at age 22, had to decide whether she’d claim Danish or Kenyan citizenship (since dad is a Dane and mum a Kenyan).

“There was no doubt in my mind: I had always planned on returning to Kenya, and I especially wanted to join the Kenya Ladies Golf Union,” said this award-winning golfer whose mum is also an avid golfer and taught both her daughter and son Stefan (whose now a pro) how to play golf from a very early age.

But it took a job working for a Kenyan web design company called Zamoya her first year back in this country before she could gain the confidence required to go out on her own and start to utilize all the online skills that she’d acquired in Cape Town by starting up her own web design companies.

The first one she constructed is called It came out of her seeing how difficult it was for a dear friend to organize and plan her wedding since there was no central place for her to go to get information on everything from wedding reception venues to catering services and bridal gown designs.

Unfortunately, the site hasn’t earned her a fortune as yet; but then, she feels compensated in knowing that people’s weddings have gone well thanks to the information they accessed via her website.

She continues to develop the Celebrations Kenya site, but since she started after5, she admits her focus has primarily been on building the website until it will one day look more like One Small Seed, which is available both online and in print.

In the meantime, one may also find Christina playing golf for the Ladies Golf Union of Kenya. For a girl who won the British Junior Open in Scotland at age 14, was just made deputy captain of the Ladies Golf Union, next in line to become captain.

Otherwise, Christina believes that both and are ‘bridging a gap’ between a public hungry for relevant information and artists and entrepreneurs who busy developing Kenya’s creative economy. She also hopes her websites are serving a useful purpose enlightening the public about the immense creative capacity potential of online publications as well as of Kenya’s visual artists.

Ex-priest Roger Sanchez joins Paa ya Paa family


Ex-priest in bid to revive gallery

Roger Sanchez, a photographer and former priest. He had previously lived in Kenya for more than a year while serving the Catholic Church as a Comboni Brother. Photo/Courtesy
Roger Sanchez, a photographer and former priest. He had previously lived in Kenya for more than a year while serving the Catholic Church as a Comboni Brother. Photo/Courtesy 

Posted  Thursday, July 26  2012 at  17:42

Marco Grieser and Roger Sanchez came to Kenya with a specific agenda in mind, to assist in the reconstruction of Paa ya Paa Art Centre after the historic fire of 1997.
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The photography of both men, one a German from Munich, the other a Latin American from Costa Rica, is currently on show at the centre as from last Sunday, July 22nd.
The exhibition, including a collection of 47 selected framed images, was opened by the Centre’s Director Elimo Njau, with a musical prelude by the amazing blind Kenyan musician, Michel Ongano.
All 47 photographs reflect post-inferno impressions of Paa ya Paa. Some aspects of the centre that survived the fire, like the steel wire and cement sculptures - one by the renowned Kenyan artist Samuel Wanjau of the Mau Mau Freedom Fighter, the other by Elimo himself of an eight foot tall Celebrant of Life.
The other photoprints focus on the ruins and the way the spirit of artistry never died despite the destruction of countless works of art and priceless texts that the Njaus had collected over more than half a century.
The big difference between Greiser and Sanchez, is that one is currently living in the south of France while the other is very present, having curated the entire exhibition entitled Urembo wa Jana na Leo (The beauty of yesterday and today).
Urembo is meant to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the first post-inferno exhibition. The photography of Grieser represents urembo wa jana, the beauty of yesterday, and the images taken more recently by Sanchez are urembo wa leo, the beauty of today.
Jana refers to the year 2000 when Grieser came to Kenya with funding from UNESCO, the UN agency concerned with cultural development and keen to help Kenya’s first indigenous African-owned art gallery survive and thrive.
The young German constructed sculptures out of the scraps that remained after the inferno, and then moved on once he’d showcased his art at the UN headquarters in Gigiri. He left behind negatives of his artworks with Elimo for future exposure.
Photoprints developed from those negatives are what constitutes Grieser’s part of the current show.
Meanwhile, Sanchez came in 2012, having previously lived in Kenya for more than a year while serving the Catholic Church as a Comboni Brother.
Coming first to work with youth suffering from drug and alcohol addictions, Sanchez served everywhere from Kibera and Korogocho to Pokot and Turkana, before finally landing at Paa ya Paa where he came with a fellow priest to help fix a computer for the Njaus.
Sanchez accepted the invitation to stay in one of PYP’s artists’ studio flats. Since then, he and the Njaus have become like a family who share similar values on a more ecumenical level.
It was during his stay at Paa ya Paa that he found a whole new kind of soulful calling: the expression of [Christian] spirituality through the visual arts.
That new calling is, in a sense manifest in the Urembo wa Jana na Leo exhibition, since the show launches a whole new chapter in Sanchez’s life, now as a layman as he resigned from the Comboni brotherhood after he went back briefly to Costa Rica late last year.

late last year. He will be continuing his post-graduate studies at Tangaza College in Nairobi, but his work at Paa ya Paa as a volunteer will be his primary preoccupation.

Urembo also marks the inauguration of a joint initiative that the former priest has started with Paa ya Paa. Twende Kujenga is “an East African program that aims to promote a spiritual foundation through the arts.” It’s also committed to revitalizing the Art Centre.

Explaining the first priority of their new program, Sanchez says it will be reinforcing what remained of the burnt out century-old house (now known as ‘the ruins’) which Njau had bought from Oxford University Press many decades ago. Intent on fixing everything from the ruins’ walls to the toilets, Sanchez and the Njaus expect to see major renovations at Paa ya Paa in the coming months.

In the meantime, sales from the reasonably priced photo-prints will all go into the Twende Kujenga kitty, towards the restoration of Kenya’s oldest indigenous art gallery and library, which had once contained more than 7000 books, many of which were either first editions or books now out of print.
The photoprints are selling for KSh5,000 each. With a KSh2,000 deposit one can collect the work after three working days.
Framed photoprints are selling for KSh8,00. With a KSh3,000 deposit, one can pick the framed work after five working days.
Original photographs are KSh35,000 each.