Friday, September 27, 2013

LUCKI MUTEBI back briefly in Kenya from Abroad of two worlds finally traces his way back to Kenya /////By Margaretta wa Gacheru. Published March 22, 2012///Lucki Mutebi is not just a contemporary Kenyan artist, one of a dozen whose portraits (of Sebei women from Mt Elgon) serve as centre pieces at the African Portraits exhibition curated by Camille Wekesa at the Standard Chartered Bank in Chiromo, Nairobi. Mutebi is also a “commuter” artist who travels between Kitale, Kahawa and Kenyatta University in Nairobi, and Kampala where he currently lives. But his travels have also taken him often to Paris and from Banana Hill to Bordeaux and Brussels where he studied interior design in the 1990s. Having lived mostly outside Kenya since 1998, Mutebi initially went to study in Belgium, then joined his wife Claire in France. And ever since, they have lived a “nomadic” lifestyle, travelling between Europe and East Africa — he pursuing his painting, she researching land issues on both sides of the Kenya–Uganda border. Returning to Kenya this past week specifically for the opening of the African Portraits exhibition, Mutebi had known for a year that his paintings were going to be in Wekesa’s curated show. “She had seen my portraits when I exhibited at the Banana Hill Art Gallery, something I always try to do whenever I’m back in Kenya,” the artist told Business Daily. One of the founder members of the Banana Hill Art Studio, Mutebi has been working with Shine Tani since 1990 when he first discovered they both lived in Banana Hill and both were self- taught artists. “I had seen him featured on one of the first TV art shows and so I was amazed when one day he was sitting right next to me in a matatu heading for Banana Hill.” Crediting Tani with showing him everything from acrylic paints to the palette knife, Mutebi is modest about how much he already knew about painting and drawing when Tani initially invited him home to share his space and art materials as well as his food and family life. “Tani and Rahab (his wife) are like family to me,” admits Mutebi. Working in close quarters with Tani for years before he left for Belgium, Mutebi had watched his workshop cum studio grow, only to be frustrated by the Kenya government which refused to register the studio for fear it would become a political party. “So we had to register as a self-help group, not a gallery, which meant we could not receive assistance or support from anyone; we had to be a non-profit, which limited our activities quite a bit,” Mutebi recalls. But government troubles were only one facet of the problems the studio faced in the early years. “I was gone until 2004 when I came back to Kenya and found one member trying to take over the group, now that we had begun receiving funding from the Ford Foundation.”The situation wasn’t pretty; it was petty and compelled Mutebi and Tani to involve the local chief who had been given a fake list of Banana Hill Studio’s founding members. In a sense, Mutebi had returned in the nick of time since he was able to expose the interloper, a local artist who had been in the UK and had returned home with a big head and bigger ego. Fortunately, they weathered the storm. “That is why I feel compelled to support the Banana Hill artists whenever I come back to Kenya,” Mutebi said. Currently based in Kampala where he paints and shows his art out of his studio, Mutebi doesn’t display his work in any of the Ugandan galleries. He feels that much loyalty to Banana Hill and to Tani. Participating in the African Portraits exhibition isn’t a contradiction, however, since the two Sebei women in the show were first shown in Kenya a year ago at Banana Hill. Plus Wekesa had informed him that she would love his portraits to be part of the current show. “Those two were reserved by Camille at the time,” he said. One of Kenya’s most cosmopolitan artists, Mutebi doesn’t claim accolades or adulation for himself, although he does admit he won awards in primary and secondary schools in Kakamega. “But at that time, I didn’t even know what a gallery was, leave alone that there was a thriving art scene in Nairobi.” What he did have some familiarity with was the fact that art could earn him money. “I used to draw portraits of famous musicians like Bob Marley and Franco and sell them to my teachers for up to Sh800,” he says. Arriving in Nairobi during the days when Ruth Schaffner was still holding her monthly artists’ day at Gallery Watatu, neither Mutebi nor Tani got along well with Schaffner. “Tani didn’t like the way she bought Kenyan art for very little then sold it at much higher prices. He felt she was not benefiting the artists,” Mutebi recalls. His problem with Schaffner was more aesthetic than financial. “She was very specific about what she wanted from artists, what subjects they should paint and the way they should paint them. I couldn’t go along with her style, although there were some Banana Hill artists who did.” Schaffner endorsed the notion of African art as “primitive” and “na├»ve”, which gave artists like Tani and Mutebi incentive to branch out and define their own style and aesthetic. Yet as cosmopolitan as Mutebi has become, his heart will always be in Kenya, which is one reason why he and his family moved back to work in Kampala. Fortunately, that also means Mutebi will be crossing over into Kenya and spending more time in Kitale, which is where he first met the Sebei and continues to paint portraits of them.

Monday, September 9, 2013

PURDY ARMS, an elegant ‘B & B’, once a ‘multi-millionaire’s palace’/// By Margaretta wa Gacheru. Published sept. 6, 2013 in Business Daily, Nairobi// Nestled deep inside a lush and leafy 25 acre forest in Karen is Purdy Arms. Once a private home built by ‘Old Man’ Bill Purdy many decades ago, the place has been transformed several times since the Purdy family decided to sell it in the 1980s. This luxurious Tuscan-like villa with all its Italian hand-painted and mosaic tiles, repeating arches and Corinthian columns has gone from being everything from a nunnery and monastery to a hospital and drug rehabilitation centre to a pub and luxurious ‘b& b’ (bed and breakfast). I’m more inclined to call Purdy Arms an intimate yet luxurious boutique hotel! Today it’s also one of Nairobi’s newest eateries in Karen, featuring everything from Satay chicken kebabs, gourmet pizza and King prawns Piri Piri to Mangrove smoked tuna, classic chicken Kiev and just a prime fillet steak with (or without) sauce Diana. It’s also a pub with a spacious, high-ceiling room opening out into a large umbrella-ed patio that once was a 15 feet deep swimming pool that Jules Sandy-Lumsdaine and her husband Rob Davidson chose to fill in with solid sand, soil and cement nearly a year ago when they leased the place from its current owners, the Catholic church. “The place was derelict when we took it over,” said Jules who used to manage the Rusty Nail and Outside Inn before discovering the Purdy home when it was still a rehab centre more than ten years ago. “When the rehab people decided to move out, I told Rob I had always thought Purdy’s would make a fabulous B & B, although there would be a lot of renovation work for us to do. So we leased it, did a heap of work on it and officially opened the place November 22 last year,” she said. Having to hand-scrub the mosaic tiles which had been encrusted with dust and dirt of past decades, Jules is most proud of the Florentine fountain in the back courtyard of Purdy’s. It’s where their pet peacock Percy stays along with a few other domestic creatures that Jules fosters after being sent to her by the KSPCA. “We believe in giving back to the community,” said the third generation Kenya citizen who freely opens Purdy Arms to the Kenya Wildlife Society and KSPCA as well as the East African Women’s League so they can hold monthly members meeting. It’s that sort of generosity and free spirit that greets you when you come to Purdy’s. Both Jules and Rob spend much of their time there (although he has a day job as a financial controller elsewhere). Jules manages to keep track of all the operations, including all five luxurious suites, as well as the verdant tree-filled grounds, dining rooms and bar, and even the menus which change regularly and include not only fine dining but also fresh pizza, ‘pub grub’ and ‘kids grub’ since the atmosphere is conducive to family outings as well as the sports-lovers who have three huge flat screen sports shows to watch while sipping spirits. Ironically, Jules got to know Purdy’s well over the past ten years while she was in rehab, attending AA meetings regularly there. What’s amazing is that she could see the intrinsic beauty of a place that had gotten so rundown over the years, but she still managed to bring it back to its former elegance and grace. “We still have a lot more work to do,” confessed Jules who took just three months of intensive renovating work with Rob Dieter Schleehauf, and a crew of Kenyans with whom she had worked at other Karen venues. “My degree was actually in business and finance [from University of Anglia], but I discovered I’m good at hospitality management. I’m also good with people,” she added. Showing me around the hotel, where she’s transformed one wing of the monastery into a hair salon and spa [with help from hair dresser Heather Winter] called Streaks Ahead, she points out all the delicate details which she reckons were imported from abroad. These include the fountain, tiles and architectural design and even the ‘swimming pool-sized’ bath tub in the suite that she calls Twiga. The other four suites all have names as well: There’s the Simba, the Mamba, Punda and Chui. What’s pleasantly surprising is that the suites are relatively inexpensive: Twiga is the most expensive she says referring to the three room site that looks out through large glass windows onto the garden and a mosaic floored patio. It’s $250 a night including breakfast. The cheapest suite is the Mamba which costs $125 a night with breakfast.” The Friday night that I went to Purdy Arms, they featured first a wine-tasting event from 6-9pm and after that, the Mojo band played everything from R&B to rock and a bit of Afro fusion as well. The band leader Andrew Starkey said they play at Purdy’s once or twice a month, but Friday nights are usually live music nights. “Last week we had a karaoke evening and it was great fun,” recalled Jules who also encourages young Kenyan artists to come hang their art on her walls. Most recently the Kibera based group of artists, Maasai Mbili featured at Purdy’s, including Gombe Otieno, Ashif Malamba, OK Rabala and Kevin Irungu. Jules also includes a number of wildlife and artistic photographers work on her walls. That includes Apex photographers the Patel brothers, Georgina Goodwin and even a few of her own which she modestly underplays. She also has painters like her cousin Amy Sandy-Lumsdaine and her aunt Lisa as well. “All of the visual art is for sale,” she underscores, noting that she recently opened up a sausage factory called German Delico, on the premises, run by two Kenyan Germans, Eric Thomas and Dieter Schleehauf, both of whom are expert sausage men. “I started the sausage factory because I wanted to serve fresh all-meat sausages that had no additives or preservatives and didn’t put any odd bits of entrails into them,” said Jules who introduced me to Dieter whose partner Eric was back in the kitchen hard at work. The dance floor was almost full that Friday night as party goers clearly loved the percussive sound of the Mojo band. But in the morning it was birdsongs that filled Purdy’s place where breakfast is full of fresh fruits, eggs and cereals that are all Kenya-made. Jules completed extending the bar and dining area shortly before they opened late last year which was a very good idea since the more word has gone round that Purdy Arms has opened, the place has increasingly attracted foodies as well as domestic and international guests who either hang out at the Pub or stay the night or both. ‘We also are open for holding mini-conferences as we have an upstairs dining room that doubles for a spacious conference hall,” she noted adding that the grounds also excellent for having weddings of which they have already had three. “It’s also an excellent place for bird-watchers,” she said, noting that they still have owls and eagles and deer roaming the grounds. (“Old Man Purdy used to have a small game reserve on the land as well.”) With their natural cedar wood floors and recently white- washed cement walls covered in Kenyan photography and contemporary art, Purdy Arms is a lovely place to go for a weekend as well as a good meal or simply an afternoon outing and walk in Purdy’s rambling garden that still has plenty of local creatures roving around. “I used to come to Purdy’s when the old man was still alive, but that is when we used to call it the multi millionaire’s palace and we stood in awe of its luxury,” said Jules who admits those memorable blasts from her past must have entered into her decision to take up the task of retrieving this monument to Kenya’s hidden colonial past which she clearly felt deserved to be preserved.



By margaretta wa gacheru. (Published Sept. 6, 2013) in Business Daily

Trash and waste products of all kinds have been common material used by Kenyan artists for the longest time. It may have begun when Wakamba carvers picked up tree branches, broken during rainstorms, and transformed them into so called curios in the early part of last century. The catalogue of Kenyan artists who’ve used trash and found objects to create incredible works of art is practically endless and grows by the hour. Everyone from Kioko Mwitiki, Irene Wanjiru, Alex Wainainaand Dennis Muraguri to Dickens Otieno, Cyrus Ng’ang’a, Patricia Njeri and Nani Croze are just of few of those who collect materials that others consider discard-ableand use them to create wonderful works of art. Kenyan artists have been known to use everything from old socks, sweaters and broken zips to beer bottles, cans and tops to tire wire (what Gor Soudan calls ‘protest wire), spark plugs and even old computer monitors! In fact, the topic of ‘junk art’ is one of the themes of my new book Creating Contemporary Kenyan Art which was recently published by Lambert Publishers. But not many Kenyans have picked up on the artistic use of the plastic bags that have proliferated and can be seen on sundry roadsides as well as in shopping centres. But ever since the Nigerian artist Ifeoma (“Ify”) Anyaeji arrived in Kenya to do an art residency at the GoDown Art Centre, people have been dropping off their plastic bags for this amazing Benin-based artist to use in her giant tapestries and functional furniture which will be on display from September 17th when her solo exhibition opens at Alliance Francaise. Coincidentally in Kenya just as Nigeria is celebrating its 50 years of Independence, Ify was brought here by the Nigerian arts consultant Tosin Onila-Eve Rotimi who just curated Gor Soudan’s Something from Nothing exhibition currently up at the Nairobi National Museum.. But Ifysays she is not ‘recycling’her plastic bags, meaning she is not changing their chemical composition. She prefers to call her creative process ‘upcycling’ when she transforms plastic bags into incredible tapestries and functional art (including comfortable couches, tables and chairs) most of which she will also show later this year in New York City at an up-scale gallery owned by the Nigerian impresario, Skoto Aghahowa. When I met Ify at the GoDown recently, she was working with several young women from the Ethnic Art studio (Winnie, Rinea and Eunice) who were helping her to make ‘yarn’ out of plastic bags. Employing a traditional Nigerian technique of hair styling called ‘threading’, Ify came up with an ingenious way of covering plastic strips with multi-coloured thread, creating a rope-like yarn which she then uses to weave, stitch or layer into stunning abstract—and often three-dimensional -- designs. Her assistants also help her to create plastic ‘bubblies’ as she calls the mini- balls that shestitches into chicken wire to create a whole other sort of sculpture and wall hanging. She also uses her bubbly mesh to upholster her couches and chairs. Surprisingly itis incredibly comfortable! Currently a Ford Foundation fellow working out of Washington University in St. Louis, USA, Ify is otherwise to be found at the University of Benin where she has been an assistant lecturer in fine art for the last seven years. OoB is also where she went for her first two university degrees. Painting and drawing since she was a child, Ify had originally set out to be, of all things, an accountant. But fate would have it that numbers were not her forte; fine art was and continues to be. Hired straight out of school to teach painting at UoB, Ify’s first foray into using plastic was an experiment she tried while in Benin, using 4” by 4” water sachets as a sort of canvas on which she would first stitch together into large surfaces and then paint. But once she won the Ford fellowship and went to the US, she had to adapt both her medium and her technique. “There were no plastic water sachets in St. Louis so i had to resort to plastic bags,” said Ify who also had to shift her technique since the bags had a different texture and couldn’t absorb oil or acrylic paint. So since her style was experimental, inventive, Ify made the shift from painting to sculpting, stitching, weaving and stacking her colourful plastic yarns. The result is an ingenious new style of ‘upcycling’ plastic to create remarkable sculptures, tapestries and functional art that may not solve the planet’s problem of plastic debris; but also show how to transform ugly junk into incredible works of art.

TEXAS-BASED KENYAN artist Naomi Wanjiku exhibits in London

MONUMENTAL TAPESTRIES WITH MABATI AND YARN/// By Margaretta wa Gacheru. Published Sept 6, 2013 in Business Daily, Nairobi// Naomi Wanjiku spent the most formative years of her early life surrounded by artists who left a lasting impression on her. “I have been doing art all my life,” said the Texas-based Kenyan who was back in Nairobi last week with a group of American students keen to spend time in the rural areas where Wanjiku grew up. Taking them to Gacharage village in Murang’a County, the former University of Nairobi Textile Design lecturer was well aware that her visitors wouldn’t actually see the rich cultural life that she grew up in. “Things have changed tremendously since I saw my grandmother and her friends make her home out of mud and wattle, roofed with grass that the women harvested and thatched themselves,” said Wanjiku who loved the way the women knew exactly where to dig for soils of specific colours—different shades of brown and ochre and white. “My grandmother used to take pride in putting on that final coat of white mud, but then, when she wasn’t looking, I’d take charcoal bits from her fire and draw decorations that i thought were beautiful but she definitely did not!” she said. Wanjiku hadn’t yet gone to primary school, but she was already learning about arts and crafts. It was from her grandmother and her female friends that she learned to especially love working with textiles. “They were all basket weavers, who wove – not with sisal (that came later), but with local grasses and bark from the ‘migiyo’ shrub that they used to strip and chew till the bark was tender.” Wanjiku watched these women create their own twine by twisting together two strands of migiyo ‘yarn’, after which they would weave it into different sizes of baskets (along with slightly stronger‘mukwa’ straps). Wanjiku’s love of weaving led her to pick up other hands-on techniques, including crocheting, stitching and knitting. “I used to win awards at the Nakuru Craft Show while I was still in middle school,” she said noting her family shifted to Nakuru before she was ten. Traditionally, all those craft techniques tend to be associated with women’s work. But Wanjiku uses them today to create amazing hand-woven art. Combining all four techniques using metals and fine wires as well as wool and sisal, Wanjiku creates monumental murals, sculptures and wall hangings that transcend gender stereotypes. Wanjiku’s been fortunate to attend schools that nurtured her love of art and crafts. At St. Bridget’s Girls Boarding, she developed her skills in sewing with the Catholic nuns. Then at Kenya High she was able to major in clothing and textiles for her A levels. Majoring in Textiles at the University of Nairobi led to her lecturing in the same field and subsequently getting the chance to do a masters degree at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Currently based in San Antonio where her Kenyan spouse Peter Gakunga has an orthodontic practice and where she taught for several years at the city’s School of Art, Wanjiku’s been weaving metals and fine wires into murals and sculptures full time for the last seven years. At the same time, she continues to combine her weaving with those other techniques of knitting, sewing and crocheting. “I realized I needed to devote myself to my art full time as i knew there was so much i wanted to do,” she said. Explaining that like the mamas in the village, she also makes her own materials, Wanjiku said she buys big rolls of sheet metal and then soaks them in water for several weeks. ‘After that, there’s the thrill of unrolling the metal and seeing what sorts of designs to water has made on the metal. I try to replicate the rust colours that i used to see once the women switched from roofing with thatched grass to usingmabati [corrugated iron sheets].” After that she cuts the sheets into narrow strips with which she weaves her sculptures and murals, some as large as six feet by seven and a half feet. Wanjiku hopes to come back to Kenya next year and open a studio at Kuona Trust. In the interim, her first solo exhibition in London opens at the prestigious October Gallery next Tuesday, September 11th and runs for the whole month. In the recent past, she’s exhibited her metallic tapestries everywhere from Brazil, Japan and Poland to cities all around the United States. Wanjiku’s art can be found on Facebook as well as