Tuesday, December 31, 2013


BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
More than a decade ago, the Ford Foundation funded the first Kenya contemporary art catalog entitled Therathini featuring thirty prominent Kenya-based visual artists picked by a self-appointed committee of four or five ex-patriot art lovers. The book very nearly didn’t get published due internal differences among committee members.
Nonetheless, Theratini marked a certain coming of age of contemporary Kenyan art as it was the first catalog of mostly Nairobi-based visual artists since the German scholar Johanna Agthe published Signs: Art from East Africa 1974-1979 in 1980.
What the Kenyan public mostly doesn’t realize is that since 2010, another self-appointed committee of local art lovers (a number of whom are indigenous Kenyans) has annually assembled a different sort of visual arts catalog in the form of a January through December calendar filled with more than twice the number of Kenyan artists including a sample of their art work.
The first Kenya Arts Diary [2011] came out in late 2010 covering 52 weeks’ worth of local artists’ work plus each one’s mug shot and brief bio as well as their contacts so the public could communicate with the artists directly, thus eliminating the need for a middle man.
A 2011 Diary was so well received (featuring art by Beatrice Njoroge on the cover) that the committee has continued assembling the diary every year without ever duplicating artists being represented.
This year the diary’s founder, glass artist Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass, insisted that funds from advertising featured in the diaries had to go to support all-expenses-paid art residencies of up-and-coming young Kenyans.
“Everyone who works on the diary is a volunteer,” Nani said. “But to clarify that the diary is meant to promote Kenyan visual artists, we felt establishing art residencies that not only cover accommodations, food and a free space among fellow artists for a month for the winning artists, but also art materials and a weekly stipend as well.”
This year two Kenyan artists were awarded the KAD Young Artists Art Residency. Mike Kyalo, whose been based at the GoDown mentored by Patrick Mukabi, won and went for a month to work at Kuona Trust and Erza Joab from Kisumu received a tie vote from KAD adjudicators so he also won and went to Kitengela Glass for a month, working closely with Nani Croze.
Unfortunately, Ezra had to return to Kisumu before he could exhibit his work alongside Kyalo’s at Kuona Trust. But the oil paintings and sculptures that Kyalo presented at the opening of his ten day exhibition (which is still running through October 19th) more than confirmed that the Art Diary initiative supporting local Kenyans is a fine way to promote contemporary art in the country.
Kyalo confessed to BD Life that he hardly slept the entire month, and the amount of art work that he produced in that time was remarkable. But more than the quantity and variety of Kyalo’s output. It was the quality of his work that was most impressive.
At the opening of his show and surrounded by Kuona artists who had warmly received and wisely advised the 25 year old self-taught artist, Kyalo explained how he’d selected the subject matter for everyone of his two dozen paintings.
He said the focus of his interest was on working people who he’d observed throughout his month at Kuona. His works featured everyone from boda boda and tuk tuk drivers, including their passengers to venders of milk, mitumba, charcoal and pirated videos.
But he also chose to try out new media and techniques he’d never tried before, such as wood carving and sculpting with scrap metal.
“I listened carefully to all the Kuona artists who had time for me, like Kevin Oduor [the sculptor who created the Dedan Kimathi statue] who encouraged me to try out new techniques and not get stuck in one art form only,” Kyalo said.
“Paul Onditi was also very helpful, telling me about pricing and marketing of my work; and Anthony Wanjau also challenged me to make sure I’m thinking deeply about what I’m doing and not to just make art for its own sake,” Kyalo added.
Noting how much Kyalo had changed in one month’s time, Kuona’s Managing Director Sylvia Gichia said he seemed shy and slightly unsure of himself when he gave his initial presentation upon arrival at the Trust. “But tonight he’s far more self-assured and clear about what he’s doing artistically,” Sylvia said. “He’s definitely benefited from his time with us at Kuona Trust,” she added.
In fact, Kyalo concurred with Sylvia’s assessment. But one thing he found most invaluable about the KAD art residency, he said, was getting to know so many gifted Kenyan artists, many of whom embraced him like a son.
“He’s shown a lot of courage, especially working with oil paints which we know is not easy; but we can see Kyalo has handled them really well. That’s my boy!” added award-winning mixed media artist Paul Onditi.


BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
Whoever thought Kenyan artists had lost interest in the National Museum’s annual art fair got a wake-up call one day last week when more than a hundred local artists flooded into the Nairobi Museum’s Courtyard loaded down with art works they hoped to exhibit at this year’s ‘Affordable Art Fair’. Their presence—a response to the call letter sent out jointly from the fair’s organizers, Kenya Museum Society and the National Museum of Kenya, inviting artists to bring their work for vetting—implicitly confirmed how keenly Kenyan painters and sculptors care to see that the art fair has been revived.
For the last seven years, KMS hadn’t put on an art fair. Several reasons have been cited to explain the hiatus, such as the suspension of corporate funding, as when the ABN-Amro cancelled its generous support of the fair. However this year, several new sponsors have come on board such as Knight Frank Ltd and Jos. Hanson & Soehne LLG. But there was also the suggestion that the artists had simply lost interest. Whatever the case, the program simply died for a time.
Thankfully, KMS decided to pick up where they’d left off and invite local artists to submit two works of art each. Apparently some didn’t get the message, since by the end of last Wednesday more than 400 works had been dropped off for vetting. According to the judges however, only about 220 were selected.
It wasn’t an easy task for the adjudicators, but one assumes their selectivity will ensure the best of both up-and-coming and established artists’ works will be on show from today (Friday, October 25th) through Sunday October 27th.  
Among the more established artists that will be included in the show are Samuel Githui, Joseph ‘Bertiers’ Mbatia, Kepha Mosoti, Sane Wadu and Shine Tani. But lots of the work that got picked has come from young and lesser known artists, such as Anthony Muya, Abel Bandi, Celine Kosi, Simeon Odongo and Nduta Kariuki.
Meanwhile, preparations for the Art Fair haven’t been the only contemporary visual art activities underway at the Museum. Upstairs in the Creativity Gallery a trio of talented Kenyan women artists have been exhibiting their art since early this month. Two out of the three, namely Esther Kahuti and Caroline Mbirwa also took samples of their work to the Courtyard for possible inclusion in the Fair; meanwhile, MaryAnn Muthoni chose to concentrate on their own exhibition entitled Wamama wa Kazi which will run through the end of the month. Altogether, theirs is a charming collection of primarily paintings that fill the gallery’s expansive wall space. They’ve assembled a wide range of work—some in oils, other acrylics and lots in mixed media.
Some works are tiny and affordable, like Muthoni’s textured birds, made with multiple khanga and kitange scraps. Others are more than a metre and a half, like a few of Caroline’s while all the women, including Esther experiment with assorted sizes, shapes and themes in their painting.
One feature that is common to all their work is a fearless blending of colors, be they oils, acrylic or clashing kitenge designs, which is a specialty of Muthoni’s.
Thematically, the trio displays distinctively contrasting motifs. Esther is inclined toward semi-abstract portraits of coupling lovers, while Caroline works more in abstract expressionism, and Muthoni is by far the most naturalistic painter of the three. For instance, her Nairobi Cityscape could be called semi-abstract except that the painting is filled with portraits of ordinary Kenyans in transit around the town, either by bus, matatu, motorcycle or simply on foot.
The other commonality that the three women share, apart from a friendship that spans for than a decade, is their concern with gender.
“The fact is the Kenyan art world is heavily populated with men,” said Muthoni who is the one that suggested the three friends band together to challenge that dominance through the exhibiting their best artworks
For several reasons, their combined artistic efforts have worked well in this show, not just because their styles complement one another, but also because the collective impact of their art serves to enhance each woman’s visibility. Hopefully the show will also generate greater public interest in the fine art of young Kenyan women like Esther, Caroline and Muthoni.


Lupita Nyong’o, Kenya-raised Hollywood newcomer fulfilled the rumours floating round the social media that she would win big this awards season in Tinsel Town when she bagged the coveted New Hollywood Award on Monday night at the 17th Annual Hollywood Film Awards Gala.
Ms Nyong’o was honoured for her exceptional performance in ’12 Years a Slave’ in which she co-starred with Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Eji…. and Alfie Woodard.
Receiving the award from veteran actress Angela Bassett, Lupita as she is known to her Kenyan public, was the only award recipient that night to tear up as she gave her acceptance speech. Other Hollywood stars to receive awards that night included Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Matthew McConaughey Sandra Bullock, Juliette Lewis and Chris Cooper.
Lupita is the first Kenyan to become an award winner at the Annual Hollywood Film Awards, but she is the second Kenyan to be a Hollywood film awardee in 2013. The first was the veteran actor and filmmaker Oliver Litondo for his role as Maruge in The First Grader.
The 17th Hollywood Film Awards, which was held at the Beverly Hilton, was the first in a slew of award nights leading up to the grand occasion when the much anticipated annual Academy Awards are handed out to this year’s crop of outstanding actors, actresses, musicians, technicians and brilliant films.
The buzz in Hollywood is that Lupito is likely to win more accolades during this awards season, including one possibly for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. She will be competing against the TV Talk Show Queen, billionaire Oprah Winfrey.
In her emotional acceptance speech, the daughter of Kisumu Senator Dr. Anyang’ Nyong’o thanked her mother Dorothy Nyong’o for her unconditional support. She also thanked her fellow cast members, many of whom are A-rated movie stars, and her best friend Ben. She especially praised her film director, Steve McQueen who had auditioned more than 1000 women for the part of Patsey but had not a moment’s hesitation picking Lupito once he saw her perform the role of the slave girl who had the guts to stand up to her villainous slave master played by Michael Fassbender.
“As you can tell I’m a bit overwhelmed by this [award] but I am also blessed,” she said tearfully. “Thank you Hollywood for championing this.”
Lupita made her Hollywood debut this year in McQueen's highly acclaimed film ‘12 years a slave’. Rumoured to become this year’s big winner at the Academy Awards, the film is an autobiographic adaptation of the book by Solomon Northup, a free Black man lured into slavery with the false promise of a well-paying job in the US. He was then kidnapped and sold as a slave in Washington DC in 1841 during the height of Southern slavery. President Abraham Lincoln would deliver the Emancipation Proclamation, technically liberating African slaves for another 22 years.
The movie tells the chilling story of how Solomon, a Canada-born free man played by the Nigerian actor Eji...C, was tricked into the humiliating position of being sold on the auction block in the city that would eventually become the capital of the US. The film has stunned American audiences who watched the film premier last Friday night in a few select cities.
The moment of heightened emotion in the film is said to have centred round Ms Nyong’o whose impassioned performance has earned her respect and acclaim from some of Hollywood’s leading ladies and men.
12 Years a Slave will premier across the USA and in film capitals around the world on November first. That is when Lupita Nyong’o is likely to become a household name among film lovers everywhere.
Lupita was born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, educated in Kenya and the US where she attended the most renowned drama school in the country, at the Ivy League university Yale.


BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
Nairobi has been full to overflowing with visual art exhibitions this month, starting with the Circle Art East African Contemporary and Modern Art Auction and running straight through to the Labyrinth: 50 Years of Kenyan Art Exhibition and many more in between.
For instance, all month at Banana Hill Art Gallery Shine Tani has mounted his first one man exhibition in several years. Back in 2010, he had ‘resigned’ from being an artist and declared himself a ‘businessman’, also known as an art dealer. But he couldn’t stay away from his brushes and paints and thankfully changed his mind.
Shine’s show takes us back to his pre-painterly period when he was a fully-fledged street entertainer and acrobat who accidentally made his way to Gallery Watatu in the late 1980s. His life changed dramatically after that.
Most of the paintings at Banana Hill reflect flying men in graceful motion. But don’t expect all the work to be beautiful since Shine apparently has a small fixation on body functions that best be left in the bathroom.
Otherwise, his pastel color scheme is reminiscent of his early work which has much appeal. So does the surrealistic edge that Shine adds to his acrobats who seem to swing like the artist from rural to urban themes.
Then, down Limuru Road at the Village Market, Tom Mboya and Joseph Cartoon shared the Exhibition Hall, complimenting one another with colorful patterned paintings that attracted quite a crowd. Both artists have grown and developed artistically over the past few years, although Cartoon seems to be content creating rural mamas full of intricate designs ranging from polka dots and strips to curly cues and bright chamillions. Mboya on the other hand is apparently shifting into a more impressionistic style while staying close to scenes of everyday life among Kenyan people.
Over at Nairobi National Museum, James Njoroge, the young painter who just one fourth prize in the National Museum’s 2013 Young Kenyan Artist prize.
His premiere exhibition was curated by Tosin olu Rotimi after which it shifted to the Museum’s Creativity Gallery where it will be up through the end of the month.
At the Talisman, Dominique Thoenes has been exhibiting all month.
But for me the most exciting arts event of the month took place last week at the Heinrich Boell Foundation residence in Parklands where the 4th edition of the Kenya Arts Diary 2014 was launched.
The launch coincided with three exhibitions at the HBF art deco styled home. Two were by the young awardees of the Diary’s first sponsored art residencies designed to give up and coming Kenyan artist the opportunity to have a month all expenses paid at a local art centre.
This year, the centres that hosted the KADRA (Kenya Arts Diary Residency Award) awardee Mike Kyalo and Ezra Joab were Kuona Trust and Kitengela Glass. The art works that they produced that month were mounted inside the residence. Then outside the Leaves glass art collection by Nani Croze, who is also the Kenya Arts Diary founder mother, were on display.
The Arts Diary is now on sale at local art centres and leading book stores such as the Textbook Centre.
Finally, this weekend at One Off Gallery, an exhibition aimed at raising awareness about the need to Save the Elephants will open in Roslyn.


BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
Film festivals have been in the foreground of cultural events in Nairobi over the past few weeks. Last week, there was the African Documentary Film Festival organized by former Kenya International Film Fest director Charles Asiba and the Goethe Institute.
This week the Human Rights Watch Film Festival has been on every day from 6pm at Alliance Francaise, with one more documentary film screened tonight, which is a ‘must-see’.
And this weekend, there will be the third annual Out Film Festival at the Goethe Institute, the most controversial of the three, but one, like the other two, that puts issues within not just a local but a broad global context.
The issues that have been addressed over this past week during the HRW film fest have been specially selected for their relevance to our Kenyan context by Neela Ghoshal, the senior researcher with the Nairobi Office of Human Rights Watch.
For instance, on Monday, the documentary film by Harry Freeland, In the Shadow of the Sun, was an intimate portrayal of two young Tanzanian men with albinism. It was a deeply disturbing yet compelling story of the terrible discrimination, ostracism, and abuse that albino people endure.
In Tanzania, albinos are not only abused; they are hunted and murdered due to the superstitious belief that owning an albino limb will literally make someone rich.
The film charts the courageous journey of Josephat Torner, an albino human rights activist who took up the challenge to go around his country, from village to village, debunking the lethal lie and speaking truth to his fellow Tanzanians.
All five HRW films shown this week have been just as powerful, compelling and enlightening as the albinism film. On Tuesday, the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s doc film Fatal Assistance was a devastating indictment of the international donor community’s post-disaster ‘aid’.
Exposing the self-serving interests of most foreign donors who came to Haiti after the disastrous 2010 earthquake, Peck challenges mainstream notions of the idealism of foreign aid. Again, the film is disturbing but it also reveals in graphic detail the ways that foreign aid is not only ‘dead aid’ as the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo puts it in her book of the same name. It has most likely made matters worse for the Haitian people.
The one feature film of the week was about child marriage and the ingenious secret plan devised by a young West African girl to save her little sister from an arranged marriage.
Tall as the Baobab Tree by Jeremy Teicher is set in Senegal, but it could have been made almost anywhere in Africa, including Kenya.
Thursday’s film The Act of Killing encapsulated years of Indonesian genocide, suffering and repression by focusing on the life of one small-time gangster who, following the 1965 coup d’etats, became a death-squad leader working with the army to kill more than a million alleged Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals.   
And tonight, the public will still have a chance to watch the last HRW film on the Occupy Wall Street movement that came into being following the economic collapse of the US economy in 2008.
Highlighting the main issue of economic inequality in the US, the movement claimed to represent the country’s 99 percent of ordinary American people who were and still are most affected by the financial collapse.
The movement also aimed to expose the remaining one percent of the population who were not only unaffected by the Crash; they benefited from it, remain uber-rich and righteously claim it’s their right not to pay taxes or assist the other 99 percent.
The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film is one more eye-opening doc film that makes the annual HRW Film Festival one of the most enlightening cinematic events of the year.
Finally, the third annual Out Film Festival opens tonight at the Goethe Institute. Coordinated jointly with the Gay Kenya Trust, the two-day fest features eight feature and documentary films, including the film classic Anders als die Anderen (Different from the others) which was made in 1919 by Richard Oswald. Banned soon after it was screened, the film was re-discovered in the 1970s and is considered a classic because it is first portrayal of homosexuals in the history of cinema.
The other films that will be shown on Saturday, November 30, include New Year’s Eve, You Are Not Done, Face Off, A Girl Like Me, The Package (O Pacita) and Finn’s Girl.
Admission to the Out Film Festival is free; however the Goethe Institute requests that individuals who wish to attend the screenings ask for an invitation by writing to info@nairobi.goethe.org.
Finally, the eighth Lola Kenya Screen Film Festival will run from December 2-7 at the Goethe Institute. The Lola Kenya Fest is specially designed for children and youth and is part of a worldwide network of Lola children’s film festivals.