UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS ART AT NAIROBI MUSEUM THIS WEEKEND
BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
Whoever thought Kenyan artists had lost interest in the National Museum’s annual art fair got a wake-up call one day last week when more than a hundred local artists flooded into the Nairobi Museum’s Courtyard loaded down with art works they hoped to exhibit at this year’s ‘Affordable Art Fair’. Their presence—a response to the call letter sent out jointly from the fair’s organizers, Kenya Museum Society and the National Museum of Kenya, inviting artists to bring their work for vetting—implicitly confirmed how keenly Kenyan painters and sculptors care to see that the art fair has been revived.
For the last seven years, KMS hadn’t put on an art fair. Several reasons have been cited to explain the hiatus, such as the suspension of corporate funding, as when the ABN-Amro cancelled its generous support of the fair. However this year, several new sponsors have come on board such as Knight Frank Ltd and Jos. Hanson & Soehne LLG. But there was also the suggestion that the artists had simply lost interest. Whatever the case, the program simply died for a time.
Thankfully, KMS decided to pick up where they’d left off and invite local artists to submit two works of art each. Apparently some didn’t get the message, since by the end of last Wednesday more than 400 works had been dropped off for vetting. According to the judges however, only about 220 were selected.
It wasn’t an easy task for the adjudicators, but one assumes their selectivity will ensure the best of both up-and-coming and established artists’ works will be on show from today (Friday, October 25th) through Sunday October 27th.
Among the more established artists that will be included in the show are Samuel Githui, Joseph ‘Bertiers’ Mbatia, Kepha Mosoti, Sane Wadu and Shine Tani. But lots of the work that got picked has come from young and lesser known artists, such as Anthony Muya, Abel Bandi, Celine Kosi, Simeon Odongo and Nduta Kariuki.
Meanwhile, preparations for the Art Fair haven’t been the only contemporary visual art activities underway at the Museum. Upstairs in the Creativity Gallery a trio of talented Kenyan women artists have been exhibiting their art since early this month. Two out of the three, namely Esther Kahuti and Caroline Mbirwa also took samples of their work to the Courtyard for possible inclusion in the Fair; meanwhile, MaryAnn Muthoni chose to concentrate on their own exhibition entitled Wamama wa Kazi which will run through the end of the month. Altogether, theirs is a charming collection of primarily paintings that fill the gallery’s expansive wall space. They’ve assembled a wide range of work—some in oils, other acrylics and lots in mixed media.
Some works are tiny and affordable, like Muthoni’s textured birds, made with multiple khanga and kitange scraps. Others are more than a metre and a half, like a few of Caroline’s while all the women, including Esther experiment with assorted sizes, shapes and themes in their painting.
One feature that is common to all their work is a fearless blending of colors, be they oils, acrylic or clashing kitenge designs, which is a specialty of Muthoni’s.
Thematically, the trio displays distinctively contrasting motifs. Esther is inclined toward semi-abstract portraits of coupling lovers, while Caroline works more in abstract expressionism, and Muthoni is by far the most naturalistic painter of the three. For instance, her Nairobi Cityscape could be called semi-abstract except that the painting is filled with portraits of ordinary Kenyans in transit around the town, either by bus, matatu, motorcycle or simply on foot.
The other commonality that the three women share, apart from a friendship that spans for than a decade, is their concern with gender.
“The fact is the Kenyan art world is heavily populated with men,” said Muthoni who is the one that suggested the three friends band together to challenge that dominance through the exhibiting their best artworks
For several reasons, their combined artistic efforts have worked well in this show, not just because their styles complement one another, but also because the collective impact of their art serves to enhance each woman’s visibility. Hopefully the show will also generate greater public interest in the fine art of young Kenyan women like Esther, Caroline and Muthoni.