Banana Hill Art Gallery becomes Regional Art Center

This article appeared in Business Daily on March 15, 2013 BANANA HILL GALLERY THRIVING WITH EAST AFRICAN ARTISTS BY Margaretta wa Gacheru Banana Hill Art Gallery is one of the busiest art centers in Kenya, featuring artists from all around the East and Central African region, including Kenya. The one factor that makes this so is the Gallery’s roving art dealer and self-taught painter, Shine Tani. Shine hasn’t excluded Kenyan artists from his gallery entirely, as we just saw throughout February when the inimitable art of the Ngecha artist Sebastian Kiarie was on display in his A Moment from Every Day exhibition. Kiarie’sone-man show included both new glass sculptures as well as a series of whimsical portraits featuring Wedding parties, market mamas, couples looking blissfully ‘in love’ and one mama busy making chapati. I confess I have been a fan of Kiarie’s since the Nineties when he was still an agronomy student at Egerton University. He had picked up painting while awaiting entry to the university, his mentor being a local Ngecha bar artist named Mage. Bar art – the kind seen not only in local pubs but in butcheries, beauty salons and tea hotels all over Kenya – had been Kiarie’s main source of artistic inspiration.And the basic aesthetic skills he learned from Mage became the basis for his winning the ‘Most Promising Kenyan Artist’ prize during the East African Industries for East African Art exhibition in 1995. Since then, he’s fulfilled that promise as both an innovator who fearlessly experiments in new media such as bronze, scrap metal and glass and as a painter whose art is not only part of the National Museums of Kenya permanent art collection; it’s also in private and public collections in Europe and the US. Nonetheless, in the past few years, Shine has made a point of keeping the gallery alive and vibrant by not relying solely on local artists. Instead, in an effort to keep his clients and the public at large curious and eager to see what new talents he’s found, shine puts up new exhibitionsin the gallery at least once a month. Shine has trekked all around the region since 2007. He’s moved mainly by bus to cultural capitals, from Kampala and Entebbe to Arusha and Dar es Salaam, stopping off at various places in between in search of talents new to Nairobi. In the process, he’s met and booked a whole range of regional artists such as BoscoBakunzi from Rwanda, Paul Kaspa and Ngura Yusuf from Uganda, LutenganoMwakishopile and LudovickKaija from Tanzania as well as BezalelNgabo from the DRC. These are artists who were previously unknown to the Kenyan public but whose artwork has been exciting, diverse, eye-catching and even affordable as compared to some of the other Nairobi galleries, such as Gallery Watatu which, under the stewardship of the Ghanaian art dealer Osei Kofi, asked exorbitant prices (as if he were living in Europe and dealing in Euros and US dollars). The result of Kofi’s setting his prices so high is that he rarely soldsculptures or paintings and thus, he disappointed most artists he’d promised to make millionaires when he first arrived on the Nairobi art scene acting like the artists’ messiah. Currently, Kofi is residing in Geneva, Switzerland after having containerized the Gallery Watatu collections, including art works that technically still belong to local artists, not to Watatu or to Kofi. Having moved out of Lonrho House in Nairobi’s CBD before he left town, Kofi shifted the bulk of Watatu’s inventory to Kitengela Glass Trust where NaniCroze kindly donated space in her new upstairs open air art gallery to effectively serve as a Gallery Watatu Annex. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, according to artists like the founding mother of Gallery Watatu,Yony Waite, who feels the de facto folding of the Gallery has left a vacuum in the Nairobi art world which has yet to be filled. Waite, who owns the Wildebeeste Gallery and Workshop in Lamu, is busy rebuilding herWildebeeste West Gallery out at Athi River which burned down a year ago. In the meantime, Banana Hill Art Gallery is doing a good job filling its pearly white walls with regional art on a regular basis. Currently hosting another gifted Ugandan painter, Hassan Mukiibi who has been in and out of Nairobi for the last few months and met Shine when he was looking for a venue to exhibit his art. Shine had been highly recommended to Mukiibi by fellow Ugandans who’ve exhibited at Banana Hill over the last few years. They include painters likeIsmael Kateregga, Ssali Yusuf, Mark Kassi, Jjukko Hood and many others. Mukiibi’s art bears some resemblance to Ssali Yusuf’s, especially when it comes to his affinity for painting beautiful Ugandan women with large colorful headdresses and long flowing gowns. But his individuality comes through in his semi-abstract work which is filled with bright and luminous colors. His Birdscape is one of the most enchanting in the show, which runs through most of March in Banana Hill.

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