ERITREAN PORTRAIT ARTIST PAINTS KUONA-BASED KENYAN ARTISTS

PORTRAIT SHOW OF KUONA ARTISTS TOO SHORT/// By Margaretta wa Gacheru. Published in Business Daily July 2013/// Ermias Ekube has only been in Kenya for a year, but in that relatively short span of time the nomadic Eritrean artist has made a large impact on the Nairobi art world. But it’s not only because he has had two substantial solo art exhibitions in that time—one at the Alliance Francaise, the other at Talisman in Karen. Nor is it just because he’s also participated in several group shows—one at the Kenya Cultural Centre’s Visual Art Gallery and two at the Village Market where his portrait painting earned him a substantial second prize purse at the Manjano Nairobi County Art Competition. Nor is it simply because he’s run three months’ worth of Saturday morning printmaking workshops at Kuona Trust that Ekube has left an indelible mark on the Nairobi art scene. All of these events have affected the appeal and popularity of this Addis Ababa-born artist. But the quality of his art, particularity his approach to portrait painting, definitely has shaped the public’s perception of this gifted painter who will travelling shortly to Sweden to start up a new artistic adventure over the next few month. Ironically, it is his last and most short-lived one-man exhibition of portraits that in my view, best sums up the remarkable grace, generosity and artistic gifts of Ekube. It’s ironic because it ought to be an exhibition that lasts for at least a fortnight, if not a month or more, given the content, quality and location of the show. Instead, it opened at Kuona Trust last Friday and shuts down today. Ekube takes responsibility for the timeframe of this important show. “The Sweden trip was planned long ago, but I hadn’t expected the departure date to be moved forward as quickly as it was,” said the father of three whose children start at new schools in a new country next month. He humbly agrees with me that it would have been best for this show to run longer since it features almost the entire cast and crew of resident artists and art administrators of Kuona Trust itself. Never before has anyone taken the time and trouble to focus exclusively on the most important component of Kuona. And that is the artists themselves. Ekube has been doing portrait painting even before he attended Addis Ababa University’s School of Fine Art and Design. But he’s never planned such an ambitious portrait series as he devised early this year when he began asking each and every artist and art administrator at Kuona to ‘sit’ for him. “The idea was to include every one of them,” said Ekube who didn’t get the chance to paint Kuona’s dynamic director Sylvia Gichia as she never seemed to have the time to sit long enough for the artist to at least create a sketch of her. Ekube might have taken a photograph of Sylvia and worked from that, but he much prefers working from real life in order to tune in to the texture and tone of both the sitter’s appearance and their mental ambience. Noting that some artists paint portraits in a ‘formulaic’ style which can lead to one portrait looking quite like another, Ekube prefers to come fresh to each subject that he’s about to paint. It’s that fresh, intuitive approach that permeates most of the portraits in his current Kuona show. At their best, Ekube’s art embodies the artist’s spirit or life force. It doesn’t happen in every case, as the artist freely admits.”I had to work fast towards the end of the series,” he said, implying that a few of his portraits deserved greater attention to detail and visual design. Nonetheless, what also makes this show so special is its focus on artists who rarely find ‘the shoe on the other foot’. In other words, they are normally the ones painting or sculpting their subject, not vice versa. To me, it would have made more sense for Kuona to reschedule some of their July exhibitions to make room for this exceptional exhibition as it’s a show that truly celebrates this specific group of Kuona’s visual artists—including sculptors like Anthony Wanjau, Gakunju Kaigwa and David Mwaniki; surrealist and semi-abstract painters like John Silver Kimani, Gor Soudan, Fred Abuya and Sidney Mang’ong’o; and women artists like Beth Kimwele, Maryann Muthoni, Jacqui Karuti and Rose Mukabi. Ekube expects to be back in Kenya shortly, but just as his arrival and artistic activities in Kenya were serendipitous, so we can assume that his adventure in Europe will lead to many fine opportunities and more nomadic detours along the way back to Nairobi.

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