Sunday, September 23, 2012

How to 'make it' in the contemporary Kenyan art world

(((I was invited to write on this topic for UP magazine, but they rejected it. They wanted first hand quotes from the artists themselves. That's okay, but i told them, most Kenyan artists would claim to have "made it". Maybe i was wrong, but I think there is a lot of humility and awareness of the magnitude of that claim.))) HOW TO MAKE IT IN THE (KENYAN) ART INDUSTRY By Margaretta wa Gacheru, September 12, 2012 There are many struggling Kenyan artists striving to ‘make it’ in the Kenyan art industry today. Some artists who one might think of as having ‘made it’ don’t see themselves in that way, so one has to understand that ‘making it’ means different things to different people. If visibility is one measure of success, then one might struggle to get your own TV show, like Patrick Mukabi who’s on ‘The Know Zone’ every Saturday morning on Citizen TV teaching art to children. Patrick is probably the best known and most loved artist in Kenya. And if the young artist can find a popular venue to consistently show your art, as for instance, Jimnah Kimathi has done - his paintings hang in every Java Coffee House in Nairobi, you will definitely ‘make it.’ Otherwise, ‘making it’ in the Kenyan art world is no mystery. It requires lots of hard work, skillful technique, originality, resilience, perseverance and quite a bit of luck! It also requires that the would-be artist not copy other artists since originality seriously sells! That doesn’t mean you don’t find inspiration from other artists. Indeed, a conceptual artist like Gor Soudan claims his artistic impulses are energized by being around people who challenge him and make him think ‘out of the box’. I might also add that a touch of social awareness and sensitivity to one’s environment is another factor that can contribute to one’s success. Take a painter-printmaker like Peterson Kamwathi. He’d been painting for some time, but when he exhibited ‘Sitting Allowance’ at Goethe Institute, reflecting on the post-election violence of 2007-8, his artistic success was assured. His exhibition was a subtle but powerful slam at ‘leaders’ who allowed that ugly phase of Kenyan history to occur. From that point on, many people saw Kamwathi as an artist who had ‘made it.’ He’s been working hard to sustain that reputation ever since. In fact, ‘making it’ in the art world is also a matter of serendipity, being in the right place at the right time. Certainly, it helps if someone studies art works, books, videos and even newspaper stories about both contemporary artists and art by the old masters. For instance, Mukabi admits he initially wanted to emulate Michelangelo, the Renaissance artist who painted the Sistine Chapel in Italy; but then he grew into cultivating his own unique style of painting and drawing. One doesn’t necessarily need to go to art school to ‘make it’ in the art industry, but one does need to be open-minded and willing to learn about and try new techniques and art materials. Rubbing shoulders with other artists is also important, says conceptual artist Gor Soudan who never went to art school but has been drawing all his life. Ultimately, there is no set formula for how an artist can ‘make it’ in the art industry, but one does need to be true to one’s self and never lose the ambition to be as creative and original as you possibly can be.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Storymoja Hay Festival 2012 Surpassed Expectations

Storymoja Hay Festival brings literature to life By MARGARETTA wa GACHERU Posted Thursday, September 20 2012 at 13:54 Business Daily
Caption: Sitawa Namwalie's Cut off my Tongue starred (l-r) Mumbi Kaigwa, Sitawa Namwalie and Ogutu Muraya thrilled audiences on Saturday night at Nairobi Museum Since its inception four years ago, the Storymoja Hay Festival has seen itself primarily as a literary festival, the first one of its kind to start up in Kenya. And from the look of the multi-generational audiences that came to the four day fete, the Kenyan public has been starved for such a cultural event: one which not only brings writers—poets, playwrights, novelists, bloggers and even filmmakers together from all over the world.
Caption: Storymoja is cultivating a Reading Culture It’s also so interactive it generates conversations about cultural issues that people clearly relished having. Yet from the beginning, the festival’s founder, Muthoni Garland has also had the hope of growing’ the program, which this year had more than 70 events and featured writers from all around the globe, from China, US, UK, India, and all over Africa including Kenya. Muthoni would also like the Storymoja Hay to become as multi-faceted as its ‘mother’ Hay Festival which has been held annually in the Welsh countryside for the past 25 years. The 10-day Hay Fete, which she first attended seven years ago, attracts more than 150,000 visitors a year, and according to Hay producer Maggie Robertson, generates as much as 15 – 20 million pounds annually for the village of Hay. Goal Muthoni’s main aim is not so much to make millions for Nairobi, although she wouldn’t mind so doing. Her goal is to transform Kenya into a land of readers. It’s to spark a literacy revolution and generate a reading culture. This year Muthoni came that much closer to fulfilling her vision by including lots of live music, film, visual art – (both sculptures by Ken Mwingi and illustrations by Marit Tornqvist), and theatrical performances—especially dramatized poetry -- on the program. These were in addition to all the workshops, panels, readings, guest lectures and book shops that did booming business throughout the festival. Held for the first time this year at the Nairobi National Museum, which is likely to be the festival’s annual home from now on, many of the high points of the Festival were theatrical: There was a skit by The Theatre Company dramatising Muthoni’s new novelette, Attack of the Shidas: AKAs Save Planet Earth, which was commissioned by the Kenya Human Rights Commission, Sitawa’s dramatised poetry, entitled Cut Off My Tongue, and scores of other writers sharing passionate performances of their writing, including Nigeria’s Lola Shoneyin, Pakistani-born Imtiaz Dharker and Kenya’s own John Sibi-Okumu, Tony Mochama and Ann Moraa. I saw Cut off my Tongue once before, but this is clearly one production that improves with age. Sitawa shamelessly adapted her script and selection of poems to ensure her show stayed fresh, timely and relevant to young and old alike. She even upgraded her cast on Saturday night to include Ogutu Muraya, Nyangaya Kiarie and a stunning Mumbi Kaigwa whose presence as part of the crew lent a ferocity and freshness to the text that I don’t remember being there the first time I saw it staged. Power The poetry itself included controversial subjects that rarely get discussed on the Nairobi stage, such as black on black racism, also known as tribalism, colonialism, classism, the corruption of indigenous cultures, and the whole uncomfortable issue of land grabbing. The corrupting influence of power is a particular topic that Sitawa’s poetry addressed, but always in a deceptively playful style that served to parody the power mongers, be they politicians, police or pompous colonials who once behaved as though natives needed to feel privileged to serve as squatters on their own land. Performing to a packed house at the Louis Leakey auditorium last Saturday night, the cast of four was accompanied only by the accomplished percussionist Willy Rama whose powerful drumming was a perfect fit for the parodies of power that Sitawa’s cast portrayed with such aplomb: from the wabenzi mama politician (Mumbi Kaigwa) whose response to her people’s hunger was ‘let them eat rats’ to the ‘Leader’ (Sitawa Namwalie) who blamed her people for their ‘unsightly’ poverty. Clearly tailored to a Kenyan audience, many of whom had been traumatized by the post-election violence of 2007-8 and who the poet felt had yet to fully recover, Cut Off My Tongue is the only production that I’ve seen which effectively addresses that horrendous period of Kenya’s recent past as well as its aftermath. Challenging Kenyans at their core to address the key issues of tribalism, inequality, discrimination, cut off my tongue as a title alludes to the rhetorical question raised by one poem. The poet says she’d rather cut off her tongue than take part in the hate speech that embraces and even justifies racism and tribalism and for her was at the crux of the violence.

Preview of Storymoja Hay Festival

Storymoja’s 4th Annual Hay Festival Invites you to ‘Imagine the World’ By margaretta wa Gacheru, September 7, 2012 The 4th annual Storymoja Hay Festival merits your setting aside four days this month (September 13th-16th) to attend a life-transforming literary event that not only features writers from around the world. There’s also hiphop, hilarity with comedians like Eric Omondi and Tony Mochama, heart-wrenching films like A Small Act by Chris Mburu and Yes Man!by Bret Syfert, and a wide range of workshops on everything from creative writing and poetry to book publishing and money making! This year’s Storymoja Hay Festival, whose theme is Imagine the World,will be centred at the Nairobi National Museum where events will be held everywhere from the Louis Leakey Auditorium, Ford Hall and‘Storymoja’ Amphitheatre to the Sculpture Garden, Discovery Room, Science and Craft Tents and ‘British Council’ Courtyard. The biggest challenge the Festival will pose is figuring out how to attend all the amazing events taking place simultaneously. For instance, writers’ workshops and master classes will be conducted by a range of African poets and novelists, including Ethiopian-Americans DinawMengestu and LemnSissay, Nigerians like Lola Shoneyin, Precious Williams and JekwuAnyaegbuno, Noviolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), LauriKubuitsile(Botswana) and Beverley Namboza (Uganda). A number of Kenyan poets, novelists and journalists will also be speaking, including John Sibi-Okumu andSitawaNamwalie, Billy Kahora and Claudette Oduor, RasnaWarah, OryOkolloh, Sunny Bindra, Paula Kahumbu, MuthoniMuchemi, and Joel Macharia. The Festival’s official launch will be a dazzling ‘Party with the Stars’ on Thursday night. Then on Friday evening, the Kenya Boys Choir will perform.Saturday night will feature Sitawa’s dramatized poetry, Cut Off my Tongue as well as a Storymoja ‘Stir-Up’ including storytelling, an open mic, Afro Hiphop and story-poetry by Anne Moraa and the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. On Sunday afternoon, the Kenyan musical Shungwayo will be staged by The Theatre Company The Festival will also be a variety of writers and artists from outside Africa, including Swedish-born Dutch illustratorMaritTornqvist, Scottish novelist Michael Logan, DutchmanAernoutZevenbergen, British-Indian poetImtiazDharker, and Briton Giles Foden, author of The LastKing of Scotland, the film version of which will be screened Saturday 5pm. One of the major highpoints of the Festival will be the Inaugural WangariMaathai Lecture to be given on Saturday at 3pm by the Chinese writer-historian Jung Chang. Another major moment will be on Sunday at 3pm when a host of award-winning writers will take part in an interactive Q&A session chaired by the Google representative John Kampfner. It’s an event meant to mark the 25th anniversary of the original Hay Festival, which was the cultural event that inspired Storymoja founder ‘mother’ Muthoni Garland to establish Kenya’s own ‘Storymoja Hay Festival’. That afternoon will pose tough choices for Festival attendants who follow Kenya politics since the author of Peeling Back the Mask, MigunaMiguna will also be speaking from 3pm in the Louis Leakey auditorium. Finally, the final ‘73rd’ event of the Festival is entitled ‘Minority within a Minorities’and it will feature members of the transgender community of Kenya.

Thumbs Up for Phoenix Players' Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday Hilarity at Phoenix Players By Margaretta wa Gacheru Posted September 22, 2012 Saturday Nation, Nairobi Affairs abound in the latest Phoenix Players’ theatrical fare entitled Happy Birthday by the French-Italian playwright Marc Camoletti. It’s light and frothy affair with both hubby Bernard (Jack Gitonga) and his wife Jacqueline (Lizz Njagah) being cheats and having serious flings with ‘friends’ neither spouse knows about. Jacqueline’s is with Robert (Maina Olwenya) who also happens to be her husband’s best pal. Meanwhile, Bernard is so bold as to invite his mistress Brigit (Shiviske Shivisi) to come stay for the weekend. To cover his tracks and keep his wife occupied, he also invites Robert along, intending to have him pretend that Brigit is his girlfriend, not Bernie’s. But once Robert hears his buddy’s undercover plan, he resists adamantly, knowing the deception won’t work. Either Jackie will trust Robert and know her husband is a lying cheat or else she will believe Bernard and despise Robert for ‘two-timing’ her. Either way, the scheme is messy, duplicitous and too complicated to work. What’s amusing, of course, is seeing a cheater like Robert suddenly having scruples and protesting about being asked to lie! What’s also fun about him is that every time he lies to his lover Jacqueline, his voice quivers and quakes since he’s caved in and bowed to the wishes of his buddy. What tops off the hilarity however is when the ‘wrong’ Brigit walks in. Maggy Karanja plays Brigit the mobile maid and ‘temp’ who’s been hired by Jacqueline to stay and work around the house for that one weekend so that the hostess can ‘entertain’ her house guests. A case of ‘mistaken identity’ can always be a rib-tickler if the cast chemistry works, and in this case, director George Mungai handled his casting very well. When Brigit the maid is erroneously identified by Robert as Bernard’s mistress Brigit, the amusement takes a twist and turns right side up. The maid is no dummy and once she realizes her role in Bernard’s master plan, she essentially blackmails both guys for double, then quadruple her regular temp’s fee! The fact that Jackie gets furious with Rob - up until she finally figures out it’s her husband who is the louse - is also laughable. There is humor to be found in this level of hypocrisy, especially as the maid has a ball playing the part, first of Rob’s mistress, then of his ‘niece’. The heat gets turned up to ‘hot’ when the mistress Brigit walks in a half hour late and finds everything upside down. She is now meant to celebrate her ‘happy birthday’ being the maid in the kitchen, which is normally alien terrain for her. The plot thickens still further when the mistress and the secret lover have space to be alone. The unexpected, or rather, that which you might expect from two spare wheels who find they have quite a bit in common as they are both cheaters who have little to lose once they take a fancy to one another. The big winner is this whole ‘mistaken identity’ mess is the maid Brigit. She walks away with the mink, the hefty cheque and the last laugh on the whole lot. So despite the fact that I’m terribly bored with British tales of farcical infidelity and lust that so many local theatre groups are serving Nairobi audiences on a regular basis, I found Happy Birthday a load of laughs, I confess. In part it was the acting and excellent casting. At the same time, the Franco-Italian factor might have meant the adult humor was more nuanced, the infidelity more flippant but less overtly foolish and farcical. In any case, there are ‘winds of change’ breezing through the Professional Center right now, what with the management undergoing a transformation that could be a good thing. Either way, I’m giving the Phoenix a thumbs’ up this time round.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

New Nairobi Theatre Group Premiers: Working Title Production

NEW THEATRE GROUP WITH OLD STORY TO TELL By margaretta wa gacheru Posted August 2012 in Saturday Nation I’m always happy to support ‘new’ theatre groups, especially when they have inspired scripts and casts that combine seasoned with fledgling actors who are well directed by thespians who know what they are doing. In almost all these respects, Working Title Theatre Production measured up relatively well when they premiered last weekend in How the Other Half Loves at Alliance Francaise. The group’s producer Robert Agengo got an experienced director, Caroline Odongo, to work with a cast that combined popular local actors like Nice Githinji, Joe Kinyua and Lydia Gitachu with relative new-comers like Veronica Waceke, David Opondoe and Anthony Mwangi who did a valiant job, standing in for Steve Muturi who had to bow out at the last minute. Where the group fell down (for me) was in using a script that replayed the same old story of married couples who cheat, lie, deceive, and disrespect their partners. The story may be cleverly told, including not one or two but three couples entangled in one messy affair, but I’m a bit tired of tawdry comedy that doesn’t tell us anything important or earth-shattering or even a tad enlightening. I had hoped to at least see some sort of class consciousness exposed in this play by the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, since I understood that Fiona (Lydiah Gitachu) and Frank (Anthony Mwangi) were ‘upper class’ with Frank being the boss over the other two men with whom he works. One is Bob (Joe Kinyua) who’s in middle management and the one having an affair with Frank’s cheating wife; meanwhile, his spouse Terry (Veronica Waceke) is stuck babysitting their new-born child and sniffing out her husband’s infidelity. The other employee is William (David Opondoe) who is meant to be ‘lower middle class’, his humble background most clearly manifest in his shy and socially inept wife Mary (Nice Githinji). But even on this count, I was disappointed since the class distinctions were not as clearly drawn as I suspect the playwright would have wanted. William and Mary, though lacking in ‘small talk’ were more courteous and socially adept, relatively speaking, than Terry and Bob. But then, everyone misbehaves in this show since the lies lead to misunderstandings which in turn lead to nasty knock-down drag-out fights on stage. All of it is meant to be amusing, and audiences seemed to be entertained, but my problem was with the premise of the whole play. Corrupted morals may be the order of the day in most parts of the world (including Ayckbourn’s UK), but when a show starts and ends with cheats, I have to say ho-hum. There’s nothing edifying or new in such a play. But I also have a problem with some non-indigenous scripts that introduce elements of culture which are utterly out of sync with the Kenyan experience. The best illustration of what I mean transpired in the first (of four) acts, when Terry demands to know where her husband has been until 2am the previous night. She nags and nags to know his whereabouts. Of course, he has been with Fiona but he isn’t going to confess. No way, never!! But please tell me how many married Kenyan women inquire every night as to their spouses’ whereabouts? Not many. And as the social surveys report, many cases of domestic violence against wives relate to their having the guts to make such inquiries. In most Kenyan communities, it is simply ‘not done’ to ask your man where he’s been all night. Of course, we have all heard about the so-called ‘Nyeri woman syndrome’ which is typified by women a bit like Terry who engage in domestic violence against men. But such cases as still quite rare. What is curious about the play is figuring out the title: ‘How [does] the other half love’ and how do you split three couples in two? It’s difficult to decipher since the only ones not cheating or lying are the peasants William and Mary. Meanwhile, the high fallutin Fiona is flagrantly dishonest with her Frank as is the cheater Bob who eventually makes peace with his wildcat wife Terry. Ironically, the only one who doesn’t seem to get ‘caught’ for her infidelity is Fiona, but as the show ends, one finds that Frank might be just as discretely unfaithful as his spouse. He might have even known of her indiscretions all along! But in classic Ayckbourn style, we are left wondering if he did or not!

When Kenyan Theatre Disappoints

The Descent of Kenyan Theatre By Margaretta wa Gacheru Posted July 2012 Saturday Nation What a disappointment to see the depths to which Kenyan theatre has descended over a period I am not at liberty to chart. All I can speak of just now are the two plays I saw this past weekend which were frivolous, trivial, titillating and meant to be raucously witty, and in the case of Heartstrings Kenya’s Madam Kenyan President, uproariously comedic verging on the chaotic. Phoenix Players’ farce by two British playwrights, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, entitled Who’s Who? was not as devastating disappointing as MKP. But in both cases, one has to ask, what are we learning from such productions? We can see that Kenyan actors have talent. But why continue to choose trivial scripts by ex-patriot writers whose storylines are so unrelated to Kenyans’ everyday lives? Okay, men cheat on their wives the world over, but that fact didn’t make Who’s Who? come close to the Kenyan reality. Transferring the play’s setting from some British village to aMachakos hotel didn’t make the script come alive either. It is always a pleasure to see Samson Psenjan, JacqulineMungai and Mourad Sadat on stage. Doreen Mwajuma, the inquisitive wife out to catch her spouse cheating also gave an engaging performance. But honestly, all that running around the stage to pretend farce is the flavor of theatre that Kenyans truly enjoy, is a waste of energy on Phoenix’s part. All I can say is, thank goodness the Players have brought back Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun this weekend. Written by an African American woman in the 1950s, the play still resonates within a Kenyan context today. It’s about an impoverished urban family soon to come into a bit of cash and the struggles that ensue over that inheritance. Far more disheartening for me was Madam Kenya President, which had absolutely nothing to do with a female Kenyan head of state. In fact, Heartstrings assembled a crew of clever, witty women (BeataOtieno, Winnie Wangari, WanjiruKaranja and BaniceNthenya, TrisahKabue and Ann Kamau) who could have had a stab at being a ‘Madam Prez’. Instead, the women were relegated to playing office underlings and gossips who like the men, told jokes at other people’s expense. One waited patiently for two and a half hours for a bright, beautiful Kenyan woman leader to arrive on the Alliance Francaise stage. But no such luck. The least Heartstrings Kenya can do in future is give us a show with a title that correlates.

Phoenix Players underwent big changes in 2009

(In light of recent changes unfolding at Phoenix Players, i thought this story which I wrote in June-July 2010 was relevant to anyone wanting to understand a bit of PP's history) PHOENIX RISING! By Margaretta wa Gacheru Posted in Saturday Nation July 2010 The phoenix is a mythical bird renowned for its remarkable ability to rise from ashes. The fate of Nairobi’s Phoenix Theatre has also been in ashes, more than once, in the last few years, but like the legendary bird, the theatre has managed to resurrect in its darkest hours. The saga and struggle at Phoenix Players haven’t gotten much media coverage in recent times. But if it hadn’t been for thedetermination, diplomatic, and legalskills of a relative newcomer to the local theatre scene, one of the city’s oldest centers of performing arts would today be a relic of contemporary history -- a stage remembered more for its productions of Shakespeare and Neil Simon than those of John Sibi-Okumu, Cajeton Boy and Wole Soyinka, despite the fact that since the Nineties, Phoenix Players were mixing Western and African theatre productions on a regular basis. Phoenix nearly shut down in 2003 after its long-standing producer-director James Falkland claimed the theatre was on its last legs. But after helping to instill the love of theatre in the hearts and minds ofcountless local thespians for many years, Mr. Falkland was fought by his one-time protégées, steven Mwenesi, Paul Kariuki and Sam Madoka, all members of the Phoenix board of directors. But once Falkland walked out on the showcase he had struggled so hard to build, Phoenix experienced a plethora of problems which caused Professional Centre management to shut the theatre down. Amazingly, it was a young lawyer who only landed on the Phoenix stage in 2001—acting in Cajeton Boy’s ‘Family Ties’ -- that literally saved the day. Millicent Ogutu is like a number of acclaimed Kenyan actors who earned law degrees even as they nurtured their love of the stage. (Think of Mwenesi, Kariuki and the late Sidede Onyulo.) The difference between them and Millicent is that not once but twice, she walked through ashes to help Phoenix get back on its feet. The first time was in February 2009 when the theatre was closed unceremoniously after having fallen into rent arrears by a substantial sum.By happenstance, Millicent got word the theatre was shut down. Not informed by either the then managing director Ian Mbugua or the board chairman Steven Mwenesi, Millicent had to do her own investigations. How she got the needed check signed, sealed and delivered to the landlord in time for the scheduled opening night of the theatre’s next production to proceed, is a wonder! Unfortunately, it also ruffled feathers of fellows who had been satisfied with the status quo, such as the board which hadn’t met in the last few years and Mbugua who apparently felt sidelined by the activist advocate-performing artist. And so, he quit! That was the first time Millicent helped the Phoenix lift off out of ash. The second time came after the second shut down of the theatre. It was again a rent payment problem, but now the complications ran so deep that the woman had to resort to the one weapon she knew well how to wield, namely the rule of law. “One of the big problems for Phoenix was that the board hadn’t met in years,” said Millicent, who found the Companies Act would enable her to enlist Phoenix members to call for an AGM. “It was the members who then chose to vote out the old board and bring in new blood,” she added. So out went Mwenesi and company and in came Peter Nduati, Lorna Irungu, Ronald Kinyangi and Millicent who was also installed as chief theatre administrator. Many local thespians, like Caroline Odongo and Mumbi Kaigwa credit Millicent with literally saving the theatre from turning into dust. Dark for nearly two and a half months, the Phoenix rose in April 2010, soon after that long-overdue AGM. “One of the first things I did as chief administrator was ask the board to re-hire George Mungai as the Theatre’s Creative Director,” said Millicent who had been sad to see George resign in 2007 after differing with the then Managing Director Mbugua. It’s Mungai who inspired Millicent to want to direct plays in the first place, and Mungai who’s undoubtedly the most versatileperforming artist working in Kenya today! Having first performedat Phoenix as a percussionist, Mungai was just a 17 year old student at Starehe Boys at the time. “I was hooked on the stage from the start,” he told Saturday Nation. Mungai is still so passionate about theatre that he’s happy to do either front or backstage work. He does everything from directing to designing sets to stage managing and script writing. “I’m as happy working with a hammer and paint brush on set design as I am directing young aspiring actors on stage,” he added. Having been mentored by James Falkland since 1987 when he first played percussion in the Phoenix band for the show, Sweet Charity, Mungai admits he learned the art and stagecraft and passion for theatre from James. And in turn, he also has no problem mentoring others, especially up and coming Kenyans who have an eye on careers in the performing arts. But while both Mungai and Millicent understand how the myth of the Phoenix has relevance in the Theatre, both are keen to debunk the stereotypic myth about Phoenix Players that they “only do wazungu shows.” “I ask people who confront me with that claim, ‘When was the last time you came to the theatre?’ Most of them say they have never been here,” Mungai said. Pointing to scriptwriters like John Sibi-Okumu whose show ‘Minister Karibu!’ opens July 22 as just one of several Kenyan playwrights whose works will be in production at Phoenix over the next months, both Millicent and Mungai cite everyone from Cajeton Boy to Mumbi Kaigwa as writers whose works are among an international array of artists whose scripts should delight local theatre goers in the coming months. So while Phoenix Theater has seen several darkened days over the past few years, especially with the demise of several beloved old timers, including James Falkland, Kenneth Mason and Gichora Mwangi, there’s a definite feeling of dynamic possibility and playful delight in the air at Phoenix, now that the ashes and the dust have been swept aside. Currently at Phoenix, Andrew Muthure, Rosemary Nyambura and Njoki Kagwanja star in George Mungai’s adaptation of the Noel Coward comedy, Fallen Angels. And at Alliance Francaise, Festival of Creative Arts opened last night in the freshly devised collaborative work aptly entitled Disturbia. Carole Odongo directs the premier performance that combines an eclectic mix of music, dance poetry and drama .

Carol Odongo directs Ayckbourn at Phoenix Players

Seeing Life through Another’s Eyes By margaretta wa gacheru, August-September 2012 Posted in Saturday Nation Aspiring Kenyan playwrights might learn a thing or two from the Anglo scribe Alan Ayckbourn, who, as from next Friday night, will have two different scripts being staged simultaneously in Nairobi, one with Phoenix Players, the other by a new group calling itself Working Title Theatre Production, and both directed by Carol Odongo. If I were you, which just opened last Friday night at Professional Centre, offers an excellent illustration of what’s best about Ayckbourn (who’s written more than 75 plays, nearly half of which have won accolades) and why his work has qualities and characteristics worth emulating, at least as far as form is concerned. (Content is another matter altogether) The first is character development. Ayckbourn takes his time to allow audiences to learn a good deal about the people that populate his plays. For instance, in the first act of If I were you, we meet the whole Rodale family and quickly learn they all live in one brand of hell or other. The biggest bugger of the lot is the unfaithful Baba Rodale, Mal (Kenga Sankei) while the sweetest, most long-suffering is his wife Jill (Esther Neema). Their kids Sam (Isaac Kimiyu) a student and Christie (Jackline Njoroge), a young mother and apple of her father’s eye, are witnesses to their parents’ misery, feeling the effects themselves. Act 1 is largely spent showing us this sad situation. Unfortunately, it’s revealing and rugged, but it was slow-going between scenes. At intermission, I was tempted to leave; but as I knew Ayckbourn is renowned for rapid turn-arounds and surprising twists, I stayed. And I am glad I did. Act 2 finally brought us what we’d been promised beforehand - a clever comedy which initially might have seemed far-fetched, but so what! After a day of dreary familial pain, Mal and Jill take a rest, only to wake up having somehow switched bodies so that the mean-spirited Mal is trapped inside Jill’s body and the sweet, long-suffering mama is stuck inside the lanky form of her mate. The actors do a delightful job taking on the body language of their spouse. Yet once they choose to spend the day in the other’s respect work sites (Mal being Jill staying home, Jill being Mal, the sales manager at a bed and bedding store), the serious fun begins. It isn’t just that each discovers how they are perceived by others, which is an ugly eye-opener for Mal, who’s seen as a philandering bastard by his kids. It is the discovery of secrets that the other’s been keeping: Jill getting confirmation of Mal’s mistress and Mal learning of Jill’s plan to leave him for good. Both parents also learn their beloved Christie is being physically abused by their son-in-law Dean (Kevin Nzevela), which leads to the high point of hilarity in the show, when Dad (inside the visage of Jill) clobbers Dean for mistreating his daughter. Mom (inside Mal) also makes unexpected decisions at work. She/He sweet-talks all of Mal’s disgruntled clients and shows compassion to all his staff. He/She even takes them all out for a drink at the company’s expense, to Mal’s chagrin. Both actors do a dazzling job ‘becoming’ their spouse. But the other high-point of irony comes when Mal (inside Jill) is forced to face his son’s affinity for theatre. The dad had once had high expectations of Sam becoming a top sportsman or professional, but Sam’s only interest is Shakespeare. Rehearsing his lines with ‘Mom’, Sam performs a soulful rendition of Francis Flute dying from Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. The dad finally sees his son through new eyes. The role reversal only lasts a day. And as the show ends, we are left wondering what happens next. But again, this is classic Ayckbourn: leave the audience wondering, aware that we may have just witnessed a life-transforming event for all the Rodales, or maybe not. Ayckbourn’s other script,How the other half loves has some similarities to If I were you, especially his inclination to examine daily life from various perspectives. In this case, the contrast is class-based. The script revolves around three couples (one lower, one middle and one upper class) meeting for a meal (or rather meals). The mix is messy but the humor’s not to be missed. Running this weekend only at AF, it’s the show to see.

Politics & African Film: New Book by Anne Mungai

POLITICAL COMMUNICATION IN FILM By Anne Mungai Lambert Academic Publishing 2012 Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru Anne Mungai is best known for being an award-winning filmmaker and trailblazer who made some of the first films about the plight of the African girl child (Saikati I and II) and the power young women have to defy traditions and take control of their lives. Her revealing and well-researched docu-drama about Nairobi street children, called Usilie mtoto wa Africa also won her international accolades and inspired her to found Shangilia mtoto wa Africa, which was not simply a street children’s home. Her idea was to offer chokora a channel for sharing their creative talents through music, dance and drama, skills she had seen them perform every day in the city streets. The former lecturer at KIMC who currently teaches at Kenyatta University has continued making films, although they have been more informational since she went to work for the Ministry of Information and Communication. But it wasn’t until her recent book launch at the British Council September 5th that we discovered Mungai is also a scholar whose text Political Communication in Film examines The Impact of political communication and films and how it shapes public opinion. Based on the research she did for her master’s degree at Cardiff University in Wales, Mungai’s book not only appraises the power and impact of film on public opinion, both regionally and globally. It is also grounded in the notion “that developing countries are responsible for improving their image on the global communication scene.” Deeply cognizant of the fact that the Western film lens has consistently projected a demeaning view of Africa and Africans, Mungai examines a range of black images, including those that reinforce the negative stereotypes and belong to what she calls “the politics of misrepresentation of African people by the West.” But she wastes no time in clarifying her appreciation for fellow “filmmakers from the continent [who] make films from their own perspectives.” For her, African filmmakers telling “their own stories” are implicitly making political statements because as the African film scholar Diawara put it, they are at “less risk of misinterpreting African cultures.” For her, filmmakers from the region are also constructing “political communication” because their films implicitly challenge the negative stereotypes and defy the dehumanizing beliefs about Africa as a ‘dark continent’ filled of witchcraft, ignorance, conflict and poverty. To illustrate her point, she compares two feature films, one which she feels reflects the prevalent Western perspective of Africa which hasn’t changed much since the days of Tarzan, while the other is by an African filmmaker (Mungai herself) who claims that she, like her “fellow filmmakers [doesn’t] just make films to entertain, but also to raise awareness among the public in a positive manner.” Both films are award-winning and both constitute ‘political communication’ by making subtle political statements about the values and the worldviews of the respective filmmakers. The Constant Gardener earned the leading actress Rachel Weisz an Academy Award while Saikati earned Mungai international recognition, including accolades from UNICEF. Because Mungai conducted her research as a social scientist, she managed to interview a wide array of film practitioners and scholars from all over the world, including fellow Africans who shared her view that The Constant Gardener merely used Kenya and the Kibera slum as ‘backdrops’ to tell their story about a white woman who came to the continent as a “savior” and died a martyr in the process. Reinforcing the stereotypes that Africa is a ‘dark’ and dangerous place to go, TCG seemed to be an expose about the drug cartels’ evil practice of using ‘naive’ Africans to test their drugs. But to Mungai, it projected the same old clichés of Africans as either victims or vagrants begging the white man/woman for money or means to escape the misery implicitly African. In contrast, Mungai made Saikati with the awareness that she wanted to present an empowering image of the African woman, unlike “most western films [that] portray African women as … victims.” Saikati is about a young woman who defies the patriarchal traditions and sets out to take control of her life. However, once she reaches the big city, she finds there are so many challenges and so few options open to young single women, she chooses to return to her rural life rather than lose her self-respect to the economic exigencies of urban life, like prostitution. Mungai’s point is that both films convey forms of political communication, one projective a positive, the other a negative image of Africa and Africans. In summary, she believes all African filmmakers have a responsibility to create cinema with that consciousness of the immense power that film has to communicate accurate images of Africa.

Beloved Choirmaster Dr Arthur Kemoli bows out

Renowned Kenyan Composer-Choirmaster Arthur Kemoli leaves the stage By margaretta wa gacheru Posted in Business Daily, 19 September 2012 The demise on Sunday of one of Kenya’s most esteemed composers and beloved choir masters Dr. Arthur Mudogo Kemoli marks the end of a musical era. Often linked with other acclaimed East African musical maestros who died in the recent past, namely Boniface Mganga who founded the Muungano National Choir, Darius Mbela, choir master of St. Stephens Church choir, and Professor Senoge-Zake, an active musicologist during the Kenyatta era, Dr. Kemoli ‘s contribution to Kenya’s choral gospel music renaissance was immense. For he was not only a composer of anthems, including the AU anthem, the University of Nairobi anthem and even the unofficial anthem of the Nyayo era, Fimbo ya Nyayo. He also played an integral role in what’s been deemed ‘the Golden age of Kenyan choral music’. Forming first the Kariokor Friends Church Choir (which later became the Kariokor Nyayo Choir) and the University of Nairobi student choir, Dr. Kemoli attracted international attention to Kenyan choral music, not only because he performed with his choirs in Asia, the Middle East and other parts of Africa, but also because his exuberant style of conducting Kenyan songsters was so exhilarating and filled with joy that he captivated audiences, charming them with his infectious musical flare. Some critics have attributed Dr. Kemoli with a kind of musical sycophancy during the Nyayo era since he, like Maganga, Mbela and Zake, also composed choral gospel songs that helped to shape the political praise genre which grew up after the attempt coup d’etat against the Moi regime in 1982. Nonetheless, Kemoli’s creativity is irrefutable; so was his indefatigable sense of humor and love for conducting live choral music. That love of music and choir-mastering was apparent during his early days as a student at both Kakamega and Alliance Boys High Schools. It was internationalized when he led the Madrigal Group as a graduate student at Sussex University in UK where he got his doctorate of philosophy in 1973. He was also renowned among the Kenyan student population countrywide since often gave exhilarating performances during annual Kenya Music Festivals. And in 1980, he conducted the Kariokor Friend Church Choir at the inauguration of the Vihiga Cultural Festival which has been held annually ever since. But in addition to his being an immensely popular choirmaster, Kemoli was also a senior lecturer in literature at University of Nairobi as well as a scholar whose research on Kenyan oral literature is published in numerous journals and books, including Voices of my Ancestors, Asio: a collection of Luhya Initiation Songs and Awendende: Luhya Wedding songs as well as Sacrifices for Africa: A Commentary on Caribbean Literature. Kemoli also recorded a range of sound tracks, reflecting his on-going research in Kenyan oral literature. He also recorded numerous television programs promoting African culture for Voice of Kenya, Kenya Institute of Education and URTNA. In addition, he supervised some of Kenya’s most imminent scholars in oral literature, including the late Dr. Jane Nandwa, Prof. Arthur Luvai, Dr. Kavetsa Adagala and Prof. Helen Mwanzi. In 1998, Kemoli was awarded the Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya (O. G. W.) for his dedication to Kenya’s cultural development through music and for his extensive experience of teaching and researching Kenyan music and oral literature. Kemoli was also an accomplished pianist and vocalist who sang in choirs throughout his academic studies, first at the University of East Africa, then at Durham University and at King’s College, Cambridge in UK, and finally, at Sussex where he got the Ph.D. He also acted in University of Nairobi productions, playing leading roles in Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest and Joe de Graft’s Muntu. In 2002, Kemoli received an Honors Award for distinguished service to the University of Nairobi. In 2009 he retired from teaching. However, he was still researching several publications when he passed on, including two volumes of Kenya Folk Music and two of African Spirituals. Among the first to send condolences to the Kemoli family was Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi who described him as “an unassuming musical maestro” who not only nurtured and inspired a multitude of Kenyan choir masters. He will most likely be best remembered “for his hilarious music compositions and dramatic performances while conducting mass choirs on national days".

Aghan Odero: from actor-storyteller to dynamic arts administrator

(The editor refused to publish this piece claiming it was 'too political'. but it contains valuable information about Kenya's relationship with the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC and the Strategic Plan for the Kenya Cultural Center.) FROM ACTOR-STORYTELLER TO DYNAMIC ARTS ADMINISTRATOR By Margaretta wa Gacheru September 2012 While Aghan Odero’s anonymous detractors were spreading stories on the Internet about his ‘truancy’ from his job as Executive Director of the Kenya Cultural Centre, the man himself was busy working out strategies for the Kenya government to agree to take part in one of the biggest annual cultural festival hosted anywhere on the planet. “It may have looked as if I was on holiday since I visited Washington, DC twice, in 2011 and 2012,” admitted seasoned actor-storyteller turned arts administrator. “But what those spreading lies about me didn’t know was that I was with the PS for Culture (Dr. Jacob Ole Miaron). We had been invited to come familiarizing ourselves with the Smithsonian (Institution) Folklife Festival since discussions had already begun for Kenya to potentially participate in it.” On the same day that he was launching KCC’s brand new Strategic Plan (the other major project he’d been working on since he became director of KCC, including the Kenya National Theatre, in 2009), Aghan was explaining to Business Daily that the SFF annually partnered one American state with one foreign country. Last year that country was Columbia, recalled Aghan who was already planning for Kenya to become the chosen country for 2014. Selling the idea to the Kenya government hasn’t been an easy ride, especially as a number of politicians seem to believe the arts and culture are a waste of time and money; but having a supportive Governing Council and an especially helpful PS, enabled Aghan to negotiate an MOU between the Smithsonian (the largest museum network in the world) and the GoK last October. And as of May this year, a financial agreement was finally signed between the government and the Smithsonian confirming Kenya’s participation in Folklife Festival 2014! The fact that the 10 day annual event attracts on average over one million visitors a year was one selling point that the former thespian made when, in December 2011, he gave a persuasive power point presentation (accompanied by two senior Smithsonian staff) to all 57 permanent secretaries of government ministries. “It would be a big boon for Kenya tourism,” he observed. It would also allow Kenyans participating in the festival to market themselves and their country, and not leave it to third parties whose perspective on Africa and Africans is often shallow at best. KCC’S STRATEGIC PLAN Whether Aghan will be as successful implementing the brand new KCC Strategic Plan July 2012 – June 2015 that he, the KCC Governing Council and the PS put together is another matter altogether. “From day one [on the job], our plan has been to rationalize operations at the Centre, build effect management systems, and streamline everything so that it can live up to the mandate it had when it was first established by an act of parliament in 1951,” said Aghan referring to the multi-racial and cross cultural basis for building the cultural complex in the first place. That mandate was never fully realized because in 1952, the colonial government declared an Emergency, and all its resources were transferred to fighting the Mau Mau. The KCC and KNT had been completed in 1951, having been but the first phase of the broader blueprint which got waylaid by the war. But after it was over, the blueprint went by the boards. Technically, the KCC was built on Crown Land and established by an ordinance of parliament. “When independence came, all that Crown Land was supposed to be transferred to the Independent Kenya government. But it never happened. The actual ordinance was ‘misplaced’ by Barclays Bank. And so, without that document, the transfer was never completed.’ The Crown has never laid claim to the land, Aghan observed; but because the land and institutions were left in limbo until now, the Cultural Centre has not only suffered from neglect. Its status has been contested by the Nairobi City Council which claims the Centre owes land rates including penalties valued at KSh297 million. The newly launched Strategic Plan aims to rectify this issue of limbo and land rates. It also aims ironically to restore the original vision for the Centre as a multi-cultural Kenyan venue that caters for all the arts. This grand vision for KCC’s new role as a dynamic cultural player and policy maker has been greeted with relief by many artists who have waited long for the government to prove it actually cared about the artists. But it hasn’t pleased everyone, especially those supporting the status quo. “Entrenched interests” is the term Aghan uses to describe his disgruntled detractors who don’t want to see him or his Governing Council (chaired by Dr. Mshai Mwangola-Githonga) succeed in streamlining the Centre’s operations to make them more efficient, organized and responsive to Kenyans’ cultural needs. The most unhappy ones are apparently those tenants who have gotten away with not paying their rent for many months at a time, since they won’t be allowed to stick around anymore. For instance, the Wasanii Restaurant and Bar at the Theatre was recently shut down because they were in arrears on their rent by no less than seven months, according to Aghan. Hopeful that the Strategic Plan will get the same government support as the Kenya-Smithsonian Folklife Festival has, Aghan notes that not only has his governing council been reappointed for a second three year term. His PS is also liaising with the PS in the Ministry of Lands to straighten out all the issues associated with the land, the debt and the mandate of KCC. “We anticipate the Centre playing a far more dynamic role promoting and developing Kenyan arts and culture in future,” said Aghan who had been busy building vibrant Kenyan cultural institutions even before he went for a post-graduate certificate in Arts and Culture Management from University of Witswatersrand, South Africa in the late 1990s. Among the groups he worked to build were the Theatre Workshop Productions and Mzizi Players and Cultural Centre. Upon his return from Witswatersrand, he started up Zamaleo, the Kenya Storytellers Group. After that, he helped establish the Institute of Performing Artists, Ltd. based in Nairobi. ‘The South African course gave me greater insight into the vital role of management of Kenyan arts and culture. It especially showed me ways to work across disciplines to advance the arts in a more professional and business-like way,” he added. The course also equipped him to become only the second Kenyan, after Alakie Mboya to hold the position of KCC executive director. (Between Mboya and Aghan, it was a stream of civil servants seconded from the ministry of culture who sat on the seat.) After working tirelessly for the last three years to put the Centre on professional footing with a clean slate, Aghan feels confident that a fundamental transformation of the cultural centre is coming with the implementation of the strategic plan. Being both a pragmatist and a visionary, Aghan expects to see KCC eventually become the hub of Kenya’s creative industries in keeping with both the new constitution and the old ordinance of 1951. “KCC is Kenya’s oldest cultural institution and we aim to see it fulfill its legacy.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

PATHS: a collaboration between Danes and Kenyans

A serving of modern dance and poetry at the GoDown Matthew Ondienge and Katrine Noorlen of Denmark perform in a past rehearsal. The two will hold their first show tomorrow. COURTESY PHOTOS By Margaretta wa Gacheru Posted Thursday, September 6 2012 at 18:01 Business Daily In Summary ‘Paths: Walk all over me’ is a joint cross-cultural work of Matthew Ondiege, a dancer, and film-maker and choreographer Vibeke Muasya. Their paths first crossed when Vibeke was in Kenya to shoot her film, ‘Lost in Africa’. Apart from the notable cast, ‘Paths’ will be a multimedia event including video, modern dance, live music and poetry. It is a lively performance that captures freedom of expression seen in spontaneous movements. The ‘world premiere’ of an original modern dance production choreographed by a Kenyan and a Dane is taking place tomorrow at the GoDown Arts Centre. ‘Paths: Walk all over me’ is a joint initiative of Matthew Ondiege of Dance Into Space and Danish film-maker and former classical ballet dancer/choreographer Vibeke Muasya. Funded by the Danish Cultural Fund, which loved the idea of a cross-cultural dance creation, Paths has been percolating in the minds of Ondiege and Muasya for nearly two years. “Ever since we discovered we are both dancers and choreographers, we wanted to create a production like Paths,” said the award-winning film-maker who was in Kenya shooting her film, Lost in Africa when their paths crossed. Ondiege had a small part in Lost in Africa, and the film’s Danish casting agent had already alerted Muasya about the striking Kenyan actor who also had a part in another award-winning Danish film, In a Better World. (Both films were screened in Nairobi during the recent European Film Festival, which Muasya also attended.) What will make Paths so special is not only the collaboration of successful dancers, but that it is also a multi-media event including video, modern dance, poetry and live music all performed by the multi-talented incredible Kenyan musician, Michel Ongaro. Ongaro alone could be an incredible one-man show since the blind musical virtuoso not only has a remarkably powerful voice (somehow reminiscent of a Stevie Wonder in his prime). He also has a marvelous versatility given that he doesn’t just sing in this production. He also provides all the musical and sound effects using everything from guitar, flute, bongos, Brazilian shaker and a duo-action finger piano called an Ilemba from Tanzania. But the Paths cast also includes an exceptional range of modern dancers, most of whom are members of Ondiege’s modern dance troupe, Dance into Space. They include Ondiege himself, Alice Kamene, Nicholas Ouma, Alacoque Ntame, and newcomers Rufus Mwakirungu and Alfred Apopa. Contrasting images Vibeke also brought the classically trained Danish dancer Katrine Noorlen with whom she has worked on several other projects in Denmark for the past few years. The presence of Noorlen, who is also a lithe and lovely modern dancer enhances the Paths theme — exploring the miraculous ways people’s paths in life cross, particularly in this increasingly globalised world where old stereotypes and boundaries no longer apply; people from different cultures and climes increasingly exchange energies and have impact on one another’s lives. It’s a no-holds-barred type of performance that lays emphasis on freedom of expression, spontaneity of movement and lyrical interactions that are invariably life-transforming and liberating. The fact that there are two ‘disabled’ members of the ensemble — Ongaro and Ouma — is almost incidental to the production since both choreographers felt strongly about treating everyone in the cast as ‘able-bodied.’ Dance into Space has done pioneering work in the past, working with both able-bodied and disabled dancers, but for Paths, the perspective is strictly on the impact (or imprints as Muasya puts it) that individuals have on one another as their paths in life cross. “It’s all about the way our [intersecting] paths affect both our outer and inner landscapes of the mind,” says Muasya, who intentionally shot videos of landscapes in Kenya and Scandinavia. These contrasting images will serve as backdrops for the production, which will run for two nights only (Saturday and Sunday) before it prepares to be staged first in Copenhagen, and if all goes well, in other parts of the world. “I think this company and production are good enough to go all over the world, if I do say so myself,” adds Muasya, who first came to Kenya in 1986 and has been coming back and forth from Europe ever since. Share This Story The Scandinavian tour may not be immediate since Muasya got to finish scripting and shooting another film that features both Kenya and Copenhagen called Nobody Needs Flowers. But once that is done, she is committed to seeing Paths go on a global tour. Ironically, one of the dance pieces is called I want to go to Europe’, which is a witty interpretation of what quite a few Kenyans have told her in the past. “Let them go and then be grateful they have a land like Kenya to come back to,” she adds.

Red Hill Art Gallery: the newest gallery in metropolian Nairobi

Friday September 7, 2012 Nairobi’s upmarket Red Hill opens a new gallery Hellmuth and Erica Rossler-Musch, in their Red Hill Art Gallery, which opens September 8, 2012. Photo/Margaretta wa Gacheru By MARGARETTA WA GACHERU Posted Thursday, September 6 2012 at 16:54 Business Daily Magazine In Summary The Rosslers, through their travels and work around the region have collected art all over from Somaliland to Mozambique, Sudan to Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. They have had the advantage of living and working around the region for a variety of NGOs, such as the Save the Children Fund and with church-affiliated agencies concerned with development and rural health care issues as Public Health care workers. They have collected the works of some well known artists in the region and have exhibited in Kenya including Sudanese artist Abusharia and Ugandan sculptor John OdochAmeny. The Red Hill Art Gallery opens on Saturday with the late Geoffrey Musaka, of Uganda, paintings being the only ones on display. Musaka, whose works have been represented by the Tulifanya Gallery of Kampala for 15 years, is widely known outside of Africa. Inaugurating the Red Hill Art Gallery with an artist like Musaka sets a high standard of East African art, which the Rosslers plan to retain. Musaka himself was brought up in the palace of the Buganda Kingdom in Bulange, Mengo where he had access to deep features of the Ganda culture. Included in this show, which has been carefully hung and brilliantly lit in the spacious white-walled gallery the Rosslers recently built, are images of hauntingly beautiful Africans. Hellmuth Rossler had for the longest time only associated East African art with curious and tribal art until the early 1990s when he was exposed to contemporary art from the region. Share This Story Thereafter, Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu convinced him and his wife, Erica Rossler-Musch, that there was so much of contemporary art in the region besides the usual sculptures, which most casual observers associate with East Africa, or that ‘real’ modern African art was only in West Africa. Schaffner quickly quashed this misconception by exposing her fellow German to the art of resident Nairobi artists such as Zachariah Mbutha and Jak Katarikawe, Charles Sekano and Ancent Soi, some of the artists whose work is represented in the Rossler –Musch collection. Since then, the Rosslers, through their travels and work around the region have collected art all over from Somaliland to Mozambique, Sudan to Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. They have had the advantage of living and working around the region for a variety of NGOs, such as the Save the Children Fund and with church-affiliated agencies concerned with development and rural health care issues as Public Health care workers. They have collected the works of some well known artists in the region and have exhibited in Kenya including Sudanese artist Abusharia and Ugandan sculptor John OdochAmeny. However, many remain unknown to the general public but recognized within the industry. Names like Dastani Simun Nyedi from Mozambique, Dar es Salaam’s Mzuguna, Ssengendo and Geoffrey Musaka from Kampala may be less known locally, but now that the Rosslers have opened their Red Hill Art Gallery, off Limuru Road, the public will have a to see this expansive assemblage of East African artistry. Theirs must be among the most diverse and eclectic collections of regional art in metropolitan Nairobi. I make that claim with some reservation because I know there are quiet art collectors in Kenya who prefer their privacy to notoriety. But the Rosslers have chosen to share their cultural coffers with the public with the opening of the new gallery. Musaka The Red Hill Art Gallery opens on Saturday with the late Geoffrey Musaka, of Uganda, paintings being the only ones on display. Musaka, whose works have been represented by the Tulifanya Gallery of Kampala for 15 years, is widely known outside of Africa. He is less known in Kenya, despite his having exhibited at the National Museum of Kenya, in 1994, as part of a “Colours of Uganda” show. Inaugurating the Red Hill Art Gallery with an artist like Musaka sets a high standard of East African art, which the Rosslers plan to retain. Musaka himself was brought up in the palace of the Buganda Kingdom in Bulange, Mengo where he had access to deep features of the Ganda culture. Completing his fine art studies in India between 1978 and 1984, he specialized in painting, print-making and drawing, winning countless art competitions in the process. Musaka died in 2009, still in his 40s. But thanks to the Rosslers’ collaboration with Maria Fischer of Tulifanya Gallery, local art lovers now have an opportunity to see the vigor and vibrancy of Musaka’s colorful style of painting. Included in this show, which has been carefully hung and brilliantly lit in the spacious white-walled gallery the Rosslers recently built, are images of hauntingly beautiful Africans. All featuring eyes that look penetratingly into space, Musaka was clearly a lover of women opting to paint young beautiful girls and old women as well. Share This Story His family portraits also come alive in skin tones that may be blue or green, brown or black, red ochre or bronze. And even his still life studies are striking, with bright and bold hues. Maria Fischer has produced a catalogue of the artist’s major works. Wisely putting the text together while loving memories of the man are fresh, she has assembled images and biography as well as comments from international collectors of Musaka’s art. At Fischer’s insistence, the paintings will run from Sh588,000$ (7,000) to Sh1.26 million ($15,000). The exhibition is only open on weekends throughout this month or by appointment. Call 0700108989 to make an appointment «

From World Bank economist to Furniture Designer

Economist discovers passion in furniture design By Margaretta wa Gacheru Posted in Business Daily, Nairobi September 6, 2012 In Summary It was an ambitious venture, and one that Adamali has replicated strategically in various formats in other parts of the world, which is why he cannot be content just running the family business. Describing his life as a ‘balancing act’ between the furniture business and consultancy work, Adamali admits it hasn’t been easy installing new systems and getting his staff to cultivate the same professional work ethic that he has. Aref Adamali never planned to become a furniture designer, and even in his days as a student at the London School of Economics and Columbia University, he never imagined that one day he would apply the lessons he had learned to grow his father’s furniture enterprise. Share This Story All that changed when his father told him that he would either have to return home and help run the business, Woodcharm, or he closes it down. Adamali, a fourth-generation Kenyan, whose great grandfather first came to Kenya as a trader from Gujarat nearly a century ago, had learned to respect his family’s business acumen, so he agreed to return home. It was a major change for the policy strategist who had been living and consulting in numerous cities across the globe, from Kabul, Kigali and Washington DC, to New York, Boston, India and the Caribbean. But leaving the country, Adamali had grown up watching his father building his hand-crafted furniture business from the time he was a child. Born in Limuru on the family’s dairy and tea plantation, Adamali was a boy when his father decided to sell his dairy cows and the tea and make his own major move, first to Tigoni, then to Nairobi where Woodcharm was born on Kijabe Street. “Furniture making was initially just a hobby for me, but gradually it became my full-time preoccupation,” said Adamali’s father, Noor. “It all started with my making a diaper stand for our first born, but it gradually grew. Neighbors began asking me to design furniture for them, and after a while, I realised it was something I could do full time.” From the beginning, Woodcharm has mainly produced replicas of classical furniture designs, be they French, Italian or English. But one part of Adamali’s agenda since joining the family firm in 2008 has been to introduce contemporary designs. And that is how the ‘furniture art’ of Mary Collis came in. It was actually Diana Bird, former CEO of Deacons Ltd., who came into Woodcharm several months ago and showed Adamali a set of new fabrics all based on Collis’ colorful abstract expressionist art. Her idea was to use the fabric as upholstery for a new line of home furnishings. “I’ve always been a fan of Mary’s paintings, so I thought the idea could work,” said Adamali who surrounds himself at his Kijabe Street store with East African art. “So I selected the fabrics I liked best, and then I decided to create a set of trial products to see the market response,” said Aref who upholstered a love seat, Ottoman and set of safari chairs in Collis’ colorful fabrics. The whole set can be found at the new Woodcharm store at The Junction on Ngong Road in Nairobi where Adamali has also hung several of Collis’ colorful paintings to complement the new furniture art. But contemporary designs are just one of the innovations that Adamali has injected into the family business. “My plan was to put in new management and delegation systems that could run themselves. Then I could devote more time to my consultancy work,” said Adamali who runs his own consultancy firm when he’s not absorbed in the family business. Share This Story By day he runs Woodcharm, including the basement factory where 35 furniture makers work with mahogany imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I also do marketing, sales and public relations with the other (white collar) segment of my staff,” he added. But by night, Adamali juggles a variety of other interests, including the consultancy work he used to do with the World Bank and the OTF Group based in Boston. “OTF stands for On the Frontier,” said Adamali who consulted with that Group in Rwanda, India, the Caribbean and Afghanistan where he spent two years devising economic strategies to stimulate private sector development. It was an ambitious venture, and one that Adamali has replicated strategically in various formats in other parts of the world, which is why he cannot be content just running the family business. Describing his life as a ‘balancing act’ between the furniture business and consultancy work, Adamali admits it hasn’t been easy installing new systems and getting his staff to cultivate the same professional work ethic that he has. But he has also been impressed with how quickly his staff has adapted, especially as he admits he is something of a perfectionist. “I not only have the Gujurati work ethic in my blood; I also cultivated a ‘Protestant work ethic’ while working in the States,” said Adamali who appreciates the straight forward style of the Yanks. “They don’t beat around the bush; they just expect you to get the job done. And I like that style of performance. It’s what we are striving to do at Woodcharm.”

Sunday, September 2, 2012

MaryAnn Muthoni's 'Woman Vote' Installation raises important questions

 Maryann’s Inquisitive Art Installation
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
August 31, 2012
Maryann Muthoni looks nothing like a political militant, leave alone a ‘feminist.’
MaryAnn Muthoni's installation entitled The Woman's Vote was up in August at Kuona Trust. Photo by Renee Mboya
Yet this petite and soft-spoken young Kenyan painter print-maker is inquisitive.
So that when her colleagues at Kuona Trust challenged her recently to explain why ‘women are their own worst enemies’ and ‘women will never support each other politically’,  she felt compelled to delve more deeply into Kenya women’s political reality – as opposed to the myths, stereotypes and simplistic (self-serving) putdowns of women.
What she came up with were more questions than answers. Were women really disinterested in politics? And were they really unsupportive of one another becoming political activists? What about the solidarity that one sees within rural women groups? Is there really no such thing among Kenyan women as the ‘sisterly solidarity’ that one finds among women in other parts of the world?
Muthoni’s ‘research’ (including all those questions and many more) compelled her to create an interactive installation at Kuona Trust  which opened late in August, which she entitled ‘The Woman’s Vote’ and which amplifies issues related to women’s political participation.
For instance, are women underestimated as political beings? Or are they merely sheep to be manipulated every five years by sweet talking politicians who promise them heaven and earth on condition that they vote for the men when Election Day comes? Are women so preoccupied meeting family needs they have no time for politics? Or would the country be well served to put more women in leadership positions?
The installation itself is very different from the lyrical oil paintings and 5-color prints that Muthoni is best known for. At the same time, since she completed her arts training at the Creative Arts Centre in 2000, she has been involved in a wide array of art projects ranging from painting HIV-AIDS awareness murals all around the countryside to stenciling Nairobi city center trash cans with environmental messages and colorful edenic landscapes.

So the fact that the installation includes an eclectic array of objects, including placards (covered in powerful political statements), voting booths, ballot boxes and  papier mache heads of a diverse assortment of African women (a Maasai, a veiled Muslim, church-going mama, trendy college student, and classy business lady) should come as no surprise to fans of Muthoni.
But strangers may have a hard time grasping what all this paraphernalia means, especially when women’s disembodied heads are dangling like Calder mobiles from the Kuona ceiling. What do these heads have to do with ‘The Woman’s Vote’, really?
As it turns out, Muthoni’s art requires one not to simply scan pretty paintings and sculpted heads, but to actually think deeply about the implications of women being taken seriously as political beings.
The only way her installation really works is if one interacts with all of its elements situated in Kuona’s small exhibition hall.
First off, one needs to get into Muthoni’s voting booth and ‘vote’ on various questions posed on her paper ‘ballots’: questions like “Do you think Kenya is ready for Women leadership?” and “Do you think most Kenyan women are empowered to make informed decisions in voting?”
After that, one has to place his or her ballots in the ballot box (the tally of which will be posted on the Kuona Trust website) and then check out the plethora of placards which Muthoni designed with assistance from Sylvia Gichia and Renee Mboya, Kuona’s two top administrators.
To me, the placards hold the key to understanding this slightly cyptic installation. For the placards make bold demands that can’t be ignored, such as ‘Family Voting (meaning the man dictates the woman’s vote) must cease’, ‘The secrecy of the ballot must be assured,’ and (my favorite) ‘All political parties [must] ensure women’s participation in leadership on an equal basis with men in all political, social, economic and cultural matters.’
The placards reveal the radicalism of ‘The Woman’s Vote’ and expose the fact that quite a few women are ready and willing to participate fully in Kenya’s political process. At the same time, Muthoni’s installation shows how subtle yet surprisingly bold Kenyan women can be. 
The irony is that if one visits Muthoni’s studio, which is also at Kuona, one will see more expressions of empowered women. Again, their power is understated, but the images of women boldly boarding boda boda motorbikes, their headdresses billowing in the wind, and even women riding bikes by themselves are powerful reminders that Kenyan women’s perspectives have changed dramatically in the past few years. It is women artists like Muthoni whose art reflects those mountain-moving changes, visible both in her prints and oil paintings as well as in her political installation.

JUNK ART: the genre of choice for many Kenyan artists

JUNK ART: the genre of choice for many Kenyan artists
By Margarettawa Gacheru
Sunday Nation, Nairobi
Scrap metal used to be among the cheapest medium that struggling East African artists used to scavenge from junk yards to create what was eventually christened ‘junk art’.
Among the first junk artists to create sculptures using scrap metal were Ugandan artists, Francis Nnaggenda and John Odoch Ameny.
Odoch popularized junk art in Nairobi when he migrated to Kenya during the era of Idi Amin and exhibited life-sized scrap metal caricatures of Amin at African Heritage Pan African Gallery.
Scrap metal was still plentiful at the time. So it was no surprise that junk art became a fully-fledged genre from those ‘early days’.
Starting in the 1980s with Kioko Mwitiki (whose life-sized scrap metal wildebeests, elephants and hippos are today on permanent display at San Diego Zoo in USA), junk art has taken on a life of its own. A wide range of Kenyan junk art practitioners now exist, including Joseph Bertiers Mbatia, Harrison Mburu, Dennis Muraguri, Cyrus Nga’nga,  Ken Mwingi and Alex Wainaina whose solo exhibition of Junk Art is currently running at Le Rustique in Westlands.
In part, the popularity of junk art is because the medium has been relatively cheap and readily accessible until quite recently.

The other reason for the growth of the [junk art] genre is because master junk artists like Kioko and Odoch took on apprentices and taught them the technique and business of doing junk art.

But times have gotten tough for many junk artists, according to Kioko, Wainaina and others. The problem is the disappearance of scrap metal.

“Scrap metal has become scarce ever since the Chinese came to Kenya and began collecting and exporting it back to China,” Kioko said.

So dire was the situation that junk artists actually called upon the Kenya Government to restrict the export of scrap metal, which it did for a time. But the scrap still disappears and few culprits are caught.

Nonetheless, junk artists like Ken Mwingi have chosen to stick with the genre but branch out into other types of junk besides scrap metal. Mwingi now incorporates everything from computer monitors and bicycle spares which he generates himself.

Dennis Muraguri mixes scrap metal with textiles, broken clocks and other paraphernalia to create mask-like junk art. He has also shifted from sculpture to printmaking as one more artistic survival strategy.

Meanwhile, Cyrus Nga’nga solves the problem of shortages by sticking with beer and soda bottle tops that he hammers and stitches into everything from crocodiles to peacocks.

But Alex Wainaina has chosen to take a different tack altogether. Instead of scouring the once richly endowed scrap metal sites, the former mechanical engineer simply goes to the scrap metal ‘capital’ of Nairobi, Gikomba, and buys used oil drums.

The drums are not cheap and they are also in much demand. Wainaina explains that it’s not only the Chinese scrap metal scavengers that junk artists are in competition with today. It is also his fellow Kenyans who use the sturdy drum walls as building materials.

But Wainaina is willing to pay the price for the oil drums since junk art has been his source of livelihood for the last few years. In fact, ever since he got the contract from Village Market sometime back to scatter his scrap metal mannequins all over the up-scale shopping mall, his junk art sells itself.

Currently exhibiting both inside and out at Le Rustique restaurant through the first week of September, Wainaina’s junk art has previously been on display everywhere from Gallery Watatu and Banana Hill Art Gallery to the Nairobi National Museum.