Thursday, December 7, 2017


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 6, 2017)
Kaafiri Kariuki has been away from the Nairobi art scene for a while, but the man never gave up his devotion to his ‘dancing pen’ or to painting and drawing what he sees and understands of the world around him.
One of the most grounded, analytical and challenging painters in Kenya today, Kaafiri’s art has never removed itself from interpreting the reality of Kenyan people’s everyday lives.
In his current Banana Hill Gallery exhibition, Kaafiri paints everything from ‘Slay Queens’, single mothers and struggling students to farmers, fishermen and freedom fighters. Yet he never paints or draws them out of context. Indeed, each portrait-like painting is intricately interwoven with lines and multiple layers of imagery that lead us to understand the larger picture and deeper meaning hidden in his art.
One persistent theme that his magic pen conveys is Kaafiri’s concern for the problem of poverty and the struggles people go through to escape it. He’s a keen observer of Kenyan life as well as a masterful storyteller.
However, Kaafiri is not an easy ‘read’. His art is filled with symbols such that every painting could constitute a chapter in the ‘book of life’ that he one day will hopefully write.
Each chapter would reveal the meaning of the images embedded in his art,  like the two fishes in his “Jesus Magic”. The artist reminded Saturday Nation how Jesus fed the 5000 with just two fishes, according to the Biblical account. “So if Jesus came back today, I’d have him head straight to Kibera to feed the hungry people there!” he said.
One section of Kaafiri’s ‘book of life’ would have to be about women. He’s the child of a single mother and his empathy for women comes through in nearly all his paintings of females. The one exception are his two portraits of ‘slay queens’. I’m told these are Delilah-like women who are beguiling but dangerous. They specialize in seducing men in ways that invariably lead to their total ruin, to the loss of everything that men hold dear.
Otherwise, Kaafiri’s portraits of women reflect his compassion for their hardships. The painting of his own single mother is entitled ‘Freedom Fighter I’. It’s a masterpiece in visual storytelling with a lovely life-like portrait of his mum at the centre of the work. Her five children are balanced in a basin on top of her head, and her utensils for keeping them alive at her feet.
But as I said, Kaafiri is all about context. In this instance, his mum’s story is surrounded by four chapters in the history of Kenyan working women. Each ‘chapter’ occupies one corner of the work. For instance, in the lower left corner, he illustrates the point, as he put it, that “The first paying job rural women had was selling firewood to the British troops.”
Then, reading counter-clockwise, he portrays women worked on the shamba. And right above that image, we see women having taken a giant step forward. “These women [wearing caps and gowns] are educated; they’re in the process of graduating and getting higher degrees,” he says proudly. And finally, in the upper left hand corner, he portrays the women’s campaign “My dress, my choice.”
For me, this painting is the most poignant work in the show. It’s also one that reveals Kaafiri’s qualitative capacity to paint and draw hyper-realistic portraits of the kind that has earned him commissions to paint high-level politicians as well as humble farmers.
There’s one other painting in the exhibition entitled ‘Freedom Fighter II’ which is similar to his ‘Fighter I”. Only this time, the subject at the centre is Jomo Kenyatta and the miniature paintings surrounding him tell tales of the country as well as the man. Again, Kaafiri’s taken time to create a hauntingly life-like portrait of Kenyatta. But the rest of the painting would require a whole volume to explain the artist’s symbolism and the various stories that jump out of this stunning painting.
Kaafiri has been drawing most of his life, but he only conceived of his ‘dancing pen’ after discovering that his drawings were sought after, not just by classmates, but by tourists he’d meet while he was still living a musician’s life. His meticulous style of drawing and decisive attention to realistic detail make him one of Kenya’s most remarkable visual storytellers, he and his ‘magic pen’.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 6, 2017) 
Paa ya Paa’s End-of-Year Piano Recital by the students of Phillda Njau was set to be a humble but happy affair. But almost by accident, the Sunday afternoon recital turned into a rousing jam session and ‘reunion’ of the band that Phillda helped to start several years ago. The Bush Bach Ensemble was represented that day by Phillda on piano and several members of this innovative Afro-classical group that hadn’t been on stage together for over a year.
The students performing that day were mainly from two neighborhood groups that help young Kenyans who had been ‘down on their luck’ before they met Molly Stern of the King’s Kids Village or Amy Crowley of the Ahadi Boys Centre.
Phillda had reached out to both groups a little over a year ago, offering to teach as many of their children as might want to learn to play piano.
“Many more of our kids had come [for lessons] initially, but only a few stuck with it,” said Jim Christie who, with his wife Sue, volunteer at King’s Kids Village, which is an orphanage situated down the road from Paa ya Paa.
Nonetheless, the two who performed on Sunday, Andrew Hazina and Matthew Wanje, were among the most confident pianists of the day. Andrew not only performed the Kenya National Anthem. He also played portions of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. Meanwhile, Matthew played Christmas carols and one secular piece.
There were four of Phillda’s students from Ahadi Boys. Ironically, three were boys, namely Daniel Njeru, Njuguna Lisandro and Austin Onyango. Meanwhile, the fourth was a girl, Olivia Natalia Wangeci Gitonga. All gave brief but sweet renditions of either Christmas carols, anthems or prayers.
And all the aspiring musicians were quietly accompanied by Phillda who enriched their music with full sets of chords and professional playing.
For the final piece of their performance, Phillda led four of her students in playing a piece by Beethoven which he had written for five pianos.
“When we started out we just had one piano at Paa ya Paa, but friends have shared what they could. And Louis Duval, our dear friend donated a keyboard to us,” says Phillda, who became one of the five on piano as the quintet played Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise.’
It was a fitting ‘grand finale’ for the recital. But the day was hardly done. Phillda introduced the other three members of the Bush Bach Ensemble who had made it to PYP that day. She explained that she together with Michel Ongaro on flute and percussion, Kaboge Chagala on African drums and Grandmaster Masese on the obhokano (Kisii name for the eight-string lyre), were only going to perform one piece.
But the audience didn’t allow them to stop after one. This innovative experimental group combined Western classical sounds with indigenous African rhythms, instruments and improvised sounds. The combination is unique and Bush Bach wasn’t able to stop performing until the audience allowed.
The group themselves were also quite pleased to be back together and before their performance was done, they vowed to stage another live performance sometime in the New Year.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Tomorrow night the 2017 Kalasha International Film & TV Awards will be the place to go for a dazzling evening attended by a myriad of Kenya’s film and TV ‘celebs’.
At least that’s the forecast, given by the look of the 25 actors and filmmakers already nominated for awards who are also members of the Kenya Actors Guild. We already know a few of those who have been nominated for everything from Best Actor and Best Actress, Best Original Screen Play and Best Local Language Film.
There are many more categories that adjudicators had to make tough decisions on. It’s a task they worked on hourly during much of November. But it was undoubtedly worth all the effort, given Kalasha’s renown for being the Biggest Film & TV Awards event in all of East Africa!
The evening will be a ‘black tie event’ meaning the ladies won’t need to be told they now have the chance to put on their most daring, elegant and crowd-stopping frocks. There will also be a Red Carpet and cocktails available from 6pm-7pm at the Crown Plaza in Upper Hill.
The Awards Ceremony is officially meant to start at 7:30pm, but what I’ve seen in years past is that photographers do a booming business when the ‘celebs’ appear in their finest attire and want to be snapped with friends and followers on the Red Carpet. What’s more, the Kenya Film Commission is said to expect a minimum of 500 guests, so I think the 7:30 show-time is an optimist, albeit unrealistic time frame.
This year’s Kalasha will reflect the tremendous growth in the Kenya film industry. One indicator of the dynamism of the industry is the overwhelming support the awards ceremony has received. It has come from the Kenya Government (through the Communications Authority of Kenya, Kenya Film Classification Board, Kenya Film Commission and KBC) as well as from foreign embassies like those of France and Argentina, MTECH, Africa Digital Media Institute, NTV and 25 county governments which are facilitating the screening of Kenyan-made movies.
The screenings of mostly Kenyan-made films already began at the IMAX cinemas in Nairobi and Kisumu. Today is the last day to go see free films before the awards. Meanwhile, last night the Embassy of Argentina hosted an Argentina Night at Kenya National Museum where two of their countrymen and women filmmakers’ best movies were shown.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 6, 2017)

The Urembo exhibition and Hekima performances concurrently running at the Nairobi National Museum through January 31st, 2018 are just the tip of the iceberg of all that TICAH (Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health) is doing in Nairobi this holiday season.
TICAH is best known for its instructive and colorful calendars that its executive director, Mary Ann Burris and her team have produced annually since 2010.

But this year, TICAH’s brought together many of the Kenyan artists who’ve contributed to beautifying the calendar with mosaic artist Eric Manya who has curated their art together with Kenyan material culture from the Museum’s permanent collection. That exhibition plus a series of workshops and art talks are what constitute the ongoing Urembo show.
Mary Ann also asked the former director of Kenya Cultural Centre Aghan Odero to assist with working among indigenous elders and contemporary storytellers to coordinate in several ceremonies and performances during Hekima.

But where TICAH has been putting a major portion of its resources and energies this past year is into a major public art project based inside Uhuru Gardens on Langata Road.
Calling it ‘Dream Cona’, the project received a ‘soft opening‘ this past weekend when a team of Kenyan artists spent all day covering the 30 feet-long (and nine-feet tall) wall that TICAH constructed with a blend of colorful images, symbols and spray-painted graffiti art. The artists were assisted by students from Brookhouse School who helped paint the wall. They also took part in art workshops, one run by Kenyan sculptor Morris Foit, another run by Billy Mutua on linocut printmaking.

But the substantial part of the wall mural was created by the team of local artists including Patrick Mukabi, Mary Ogembo, Nadia Wamunyu, Charles Ngatia, Billy Mutua and BSQ members Bebetu Thufu and Ken Otieno among others.
“We call it a soft launch because we don’t care to make a big splash,” said Mary Ann. “We just want to create more spaces in Nairobi where Kenyans can come and express themselves freely,” she added.
In fact, the wall had already been painted once. “We actually intend to paint it over several more times. But then we’ll take photographs of each mural and transpose it onto big banners that we’ll keep as part of our Dream Cona collection,” said Mary Ann as she pointed to the first banner reflecting the colorful creativity of the first wall mural.

But the wall is only one structure that TICAH’s constructed on the acre-square-sized plot at one end of Uhuru Gardens. The other is a good sized (40 feet by 40 feet) tented performance space that will be used as everything from a theatre stage to a dance and DJ arena to a site where workshops and ceremonies can take place.
Over this past weekend it was used as a storytelling site where the Sigana storytellers performed throughout Saturday. Music was also provided by the popular band, Kenge Kenge.
But Dream Cona is not TICAH’s first foray into Uhuru Gardens. More than a year ago, Mary Ann together with a number of artists constructed a stone labyrinth they call ‘Mahali pa Umoja’ which is similar to the ‘Peace Path’ labyrinth that TICAH built at the Nairobi Museum two years ago with stones from all over Kenya, including Kisii stone sculptures carved by the esteemed Kenyan sculptor Elkana Ong’esa.

This time the labyrinth was conceived with mainly ‘njiru’ building stones while Eric Manya created a multifaceted mosaic at its centre. But the concept behind both laybrinths is similar. Both are sites for meditation and for drawing together peace-making energies from all over Kenya.
“We have had elders come from all over Kenya this year to bless Mahali pa Umoja,” said Mary Ann. They have come from the Samburu, Maasai, Turkana, Giriama, Kamba, Luo, Kikuyu, Kisii, Luhya, and Digo among others. “But the majority of elders have been Maasai since we feel that historically this has been their land,” she added.

Having secured all the necessary permits and papers to utilize the acreage at Uhuru Gardens, Mary Ann said the aim of the whole monumental project is to open up more public space for Kenyans to come enjoy themselves and if they wish, to get involved in the creative process.



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 6, 2017)

Ballet isn’t an art form that Kenyans know very well. And if they do, they probably won’t expect to see the quality of professionalism that they will find if they go see The Nutcracker this weekend at Kenya National Theatre.

If they have been to any one of the Dance Centre of Kenya’s previous productions, they won’t be surprised to find teenagers (and even pre-teens) performing at such a high level of precision, grace, beauty and elegance that watching them perform will be a joy and privilege.
It’s true that the world over, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s enchanting children’s fairy tale (based on a short story by Alexander Dumas who adapted it from earlier story by E.T.A. Hoffmann) has in recent years become a Christmas tradition. The DCK has also followed that tradition, having staged it for a third time at KNT this year.
One might imagine the public would tire of this particular ballet, despite DCK having staged other ballet classics such as Giselle, Les Sylphide and Pas de Quatre. But for one thing, Tchaikovsky’s music is sublime and it’s well worth going to The Nutcracker just to listen to his marvelous music.

But what’s even more relevant is that Cooper Rust, DCK’s artistic director and choreographer of all three productions, has always revised the dance format slightly but significantly every year. As such, every performance has been fresh and also filled with a number of new dances as well as new cast members and dancers as well.
Cooper stays true to the basic storyline, of course. It’s essentially about a little girl named Clara (danced deftly by eleven year old Carolina Fusillo) who has a marvelous dream. It’s about the Christmas gift she’s received from her god father (Ian Mbugua and Joseph ‘Babu’ Wairimu alternatively). It’s a nutcracker formed like a toy soldier  (Shamick Otieno) that comes to life, battles the forces of evil (embodied as rats led by the sinister Rat King (Silas Ouma), and gets saved by Clara’s quick thinking.
For her bravery, Clara is crowned a princess of the Royal Court in the Land of Sweets. She’s also rewarded by the Arch Angel (Kayla Hotz) with a series of exotic dances delightfully performed by Cooper’s most superlative senior dance students as well as by child dancers as young as three years old.

The story is as enchanting as is the music and the dance. One feels the production gets better every year, although this year there’s one obvious omission. It’s Joel Kioko, the young dance wonder from Eastlands who’d previously played the Nutcracker and Sugar Plum Cavalier (played this year by Guest artist Baris Erhan). Kioko is now studying at the English National Ballet School, having received intense dance instruction from Cooper who’d seen the young man’s immense athletic and artistic potential.
Other DCK graduates who have gone to greener pastures include Annabel Shaw who’s now at the Northern Ballet School in UK, Lucile Plumbe who’s at the Academie Internationale and Anjuli Vadera who’s at the Laban Conservatoire of Dance, also in UK.

One other enticing addition to this year’s production were the beautiful set designs painted by student artists from Kenton, Hillcrest Secondary Schools and the Rudolf Steiner Primary School.
The opening night’s Silent Auction featuring everything from air plane tickets to adult bikes was an amazing illustration of how generous the corporate community when they care to get behind an artistic production like The Nutcracker. Congratulations to
Cooper Rust and her team which clearly elicit unlimited confidence in not only parents who’ve sent their children to DCK in droves since the centre opened in early 2015, but also in Corporates who have shown how supportive they can be of the arts when they want to be.

The Nutcracker will be performed this weekend both Saturday and Sunday including matinees at the National Theatre.
Meanwhile, Heartstrings Entertainment is currently staging their latest rip-roaring comedy, ‘Nobody is Leaving’ at Alliance Francaise. It runs this weekend and next. The Friday shows will be staged twice both weekends, at 6:30 and 8:30pm. Then on both Saturdays there will be three performances, at 3, 6:30 and 8:30. And finally, on both Sundays, there will only be shows at 3 and 6:30pm.
Last but not least, Martin Kigondu is bringing back “What Happens in the Night” next Saturday, December 16 at  5pm at the Daystar Valley Road Auditorium. The shows starts Nick Ndeda, Chichi Seii, Bilal Mwaura, Shiviske Shivisi and Salim Gitau.

Monday, November 27, 2017



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 27, 2017)

Every Nairobian who has made their way to the CBD (Central Business District) has seen monumental sculptures standing outside in public spaces.

If they have come to town, they have surely seen the giant figure created by the Kenyan sculptor Oshoto Ondula of Tom Mboya standing tall just next to the National Archives. And if they walk half a block from Tom Mboya’s site to the start of Kimathi Street, they will find the larger-than-life sculpture of Dedan Kimathi, created by Kevin Oduor who collaborated with Kenyatta University.

Probably the most renowned outdoor sculpture in Nairobi stands right next to Kenyatta International Conference Centre. It’s the one of the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, dressed in full stately regalia.

But outdoor sculptures need not be only of national leaders or even public figures like the paleontologist Louis Leakey whose sculpture, created by the late Charles Bwiri, is seated outside the Louis Leakey Auditorium at the Nairobi National Museum.

The Museum itself is proof of that point. There’s amazing public art at the main entrance of the Museum. One stone sculpture, called ‘Mother and Child’, is by the Ugandan artist Frances Nnaggenda while a humble ‘Working Man’ is a short distance away created by Jackson Wanjau.

And leave alone the gigantic Dinosaur and life-size elephant called Ahmed that all school children who visit the museum know very well. They also know about the tall glass and metal sculpture that’s been erected just behind the Nnaggenda, although they probably don’t know it was created by the glass artist Tonney Mugo.

Outdoor sculptures have increasingly become popular in both public and private gardens. Two that were specifically commissioned for the Garden City Mall are by Maggie Otieno and Peterson Kamwathi. And three that stand tall and proud on the grounds of George Waititu’s Tafaria  Castle are all by Joseph Bertiers Mbathia.

But one need not own a shopping mall or even a castle to appreciate the way an outdoor sculpture can beautify someone’s garden. Just ask the American-born scholar Dr. Dana Seidenberg about the pleasure she finds in both owning Kenyan art, including sculptures that she’s placed all around her garden, and supporting local artists in the process.  

Her two Kenyan sculptors whose works she owns the most of are Irene Wanjiru and Elijah Ogira.

“I have pieces by other Kenyan artists but I’m particularly fond of Irene’s and Ogira’s art,” says Dana. Both artists work mainly in wood, but interestingly enough Dana has placed more of Irene’s sculptures out in her garden while Ogira’s more functional sculptures are to be found at the front entrance of Dana’s home.

According to the former Principal of the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art, Boniface Kimani, most of the sculptures that he creates are commissioned by private individuals who know the quality of his art.

“Some of the commissions are for sculptures that remain inside people’s homes. But quite a few are meant to stand outside the house, either at the front entrance, outside the front door or out in the garden,” says Boniface who resigned from BIFA sometime back in order to do his art full-time.

Another sculptor who spent a lot of time creating sculptures for people’s private gardens and front gates is the late Expedito Mwebe. His son Michael Angelo worked closely with his father and so, he can point out practically every house in town that’s got an example of his and his father’s outdoor art.  

One man who says he loves the sculpture he created at the front entrance of his home is Edward Njenga. The ninety-five year old sculptor says the giant bust of a beautiful young girl which is situated just outside the front gate is an excellent marker to help visitors easily find their way to his house.

The other artist who’s created outdoor sculptures to show visitors the way to her home and business is Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass Research and Training Trust. In fact, all around the grounds of Nani’s place one can see outdoor sculptures (made both by her, members of her staff and visiting artists) that will make one wish that they too could have outdoor sculptures in their backyard.



                             Colourfall by Ian Davenport seen November 2017 at the Venice Biennale, Giardini

Friends, I never meant to abandon you but I forgot my password so started another blog called Kenyan Arts Review. I will try to bring all those stories from mid 2016 here but in the meantime, you will find heaps of my stories there.