Technically speaking, Chelenge van Rampelberg never took a single art course until the early 1990s when she went for a two week workshop at Alliance Francaise where she first learned about the art of etching and wood cut printing. But realistically, Kenya’s first female sculptor was exposed to indigenous ‘material culture’ from an early age. Growing up in the rural Rift Valley when the forests were still thick, bushy and wild, Chelenge, 52, did everything a rural child was required to do. She fetched firewood, meaning she had to work with machetes, axes and knives to chop up fallen tree branches to carry home for use as fuel. The tools were some of the same ones that she works with today both to create her wonderful wood statues and woodcut etching, both of which are on display throughout October at One Off Gallery.

Back then she also learned to weave grass ‘plates’ on which her mother would serve the family ugali almost every night. “It was like child’s play for us since all little girls had to learn to weave. Nobody had store-bought plates or cups back then. We also used to create our own cups by slicing gourds in two,” the artist said. Clearly nostalgic for that bygone style of life, chelenge still dreams of those forests. “I go deep inside them and that’s where I find the gorillas, elephants and birds that I etch onto wooden plates when I’m awake,” said the 52 year old mother of three who might not have begun to produce works of art if her last born child hadn’t insisted on staying in school with his big sisters rather than come home with his mom. “it was actually out of loneliness that I first began to paint,” she confessed. “After I agreed to leave him in school (despite his being only 3), I went out and bought all colors of house paint, brushes and Americani fabric, and then got to wrok painting behind our house. After that I hid my paintings under my bed so no one would see.” It was only when her spouse Marc discovered her stash and then told her work mate at Gallery Watatu Ruth Schaffner that he’d found a treasure trove of his wife’s art work. It didn’t take long after that for all that early work to find its way to the Gallery where “it sold like hot cakes” chelenge recalls. Then shortly after that, she attended the AF etching and print-making workshop, the fruits of which are at One Off today. Having neither paper or a proper printing press of her own, Chelenge’ stunning woodcuts are filled with images from her memories and dreams. She has a special affinity for elephats and gorillas, despite her never having seen the latter in real life. Her woodcut ethchings as well as her life si\ze sculptures of both forest dwellers reveal a warmth, affection and playful intimacy that feels almost anthropomorphic. But both her sculpture and her woodcut plates—which represent a full ten years of effort—also dwell on another important dimension of her life which is the family, including a mother’s pregnancy and child birth. In fact, some of chelenge’s most powerful sculptures are of women, one heavily pregnant (even as she’s eight feet tall) and looking grand, another in which the woman has just given birth, and yet another where she and her sweetheart are slow dancing in an intimate embrace. The theme of family affection recurs in her woodcuts as well where mama gorillas play games with their children and a regal elephant mama is deemed ‘Queen Mother of the Jungle.’ Human beings also welcome visitors home their humble mud and wattle huts, homes like the ones in which chelenge grew up. Remembering an idyllic rural lifestyle that she concedes no longer exists [in the Rift Valley], Chelenge may not have gone to a formal art college, but her early years were filled with indigenous artistry. The woods she works with today are more diverse than those she carried home back then: Today she sculpts using everything from doum palm, ebony and jacaranda to avocado, sikotoi and even the man-made wood created from recycled sawdust known as … But she learned to use the most basic tools for sculpting as a child. And while the grains, colors, textures and types of wood are impressive, what’s even more inspiring about Chelenge’s first art exhibition in more than ten years (her last one was at the Italian Institute of Culture in 1998) is her artistic vision which is deeply indigenous Kenyan, at the same time as it’s dreamlike and nostalgic for a pastoral past life that’s very different from the one existing in rural Kenya today.


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