Lionel Richie Garang’ at Kuona Trust

From a matatu artist to a mask sculptor

Garang with Mama Africa mask. PHOTO/MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

Garang with Mama Africa mask. PHOTO/MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

L.R. Garang’s mother loved Lionel Richie, the former lead singer of The Commodores, that she named her first born song after him – Lionel Richie Garang. He did not rise to follow in the steps of the man he was named after. Today L.R is making a mark on the local art scene with his three-dimensional mask. He is currently based at the Kuona Trust-where his first one man show, dubbed The Journey of the Mask, is on display. This is not his first exhibition in Kenya. He’s been in group shows at the National Museum, ISK and Village Market as well as at the Tafaria Castle, Nyahururu, where he did an art residency with Rose Mukabi and painted murals in local dispensaries.
He’s also assisted sculptors Kevin Oduor and Meshack Oino in public art projects such as the one at the Syokimau Railway station.
The self-taught artist was involved in another form of public art before he met Kevin and Meshack after he completed his secondary education at Muslim Boys. Matatu art. It had captured his imagination since childhood when his family lived right next to a matatu station.
“It was the first art form I’d seen and I used to draw images while I was still in the school of design. I dreamed I would one day paint on actual matatus,” said Garang.
He had a portfolio of matatu drawings which came in handy when he applied for his first job with well-known matatu artist Mohe.
“I had seen Mohe on TV where he was being interviewed and he said he was open to having anyone come and learn to do matatu art with him, so I decided to follow up on his offer,” he said. Garang went looking for Mohe, that was the start of his art career. He picked up techniques and skills from his mentor.
After a year he pursued of another opportunity which he learnt from TV, again, at the National Museum. Here he met Patrick Odoyo, head of the Museum Exhibitions Department. Odoyo introduced him to Kevin and Shack and from then on, he’s been working on various projects with them. “I was also an IDP in Kevin’s studio at Kuona Trust until I applied for and got studio space of my own,” he recalled. “I was first put on a three-month trial period to see if I had the talent and incentive to work. I’ve been there ever since.”
Garang’s artistic energies are no longer in dispute. His Mask exhibition makes it quite clear that he may be ‘self-taught’ but has been mentored by masters. He’s fond of sculpture although he’s still at an experimental stage in his artistic development. His mask exhibition testifies to that. Working with an array of mixed media, Garang has created his own narrative of the history of masks. Creating them out of wood and scrap metal, including the tops and whole bodies of spray paint cans, though some of his masks look more primitive than others.

“In the beginning, people used masks as part of religious ceremonies,” he says.
His exhibition ‘The Journey of the Masks’ feels like it’s an anthropological study, he lapsed into stories associating his masks with a “Night Watchman”, a “Mama Africa” and even a side walk “Newspaper vendor.” But his apparently random choice of mask subjects doesn’t really depreciate one’s appreciation of Garang’s imaginative usage of mixed media. For instance, his “Peace Mask” is made out of flattened spray cans; his “Vase Mask” is made with a combination of random metal wires, nuts and bolts. While his ‘Mama Africa’ is carved out of wood and then covered in nylon and plastic sheets as well as pieces of those spray cans.
My favourite mask is his Newspaper Vendor who he says resembles a real vendor, particularly the one that is situated himself not far from Kuona’s front gate. The vendor is actually more than a mask. Garang has created a scarecrow like man, complete with a shirt and trousers and an old pair of dirty tennis shoes. Garang appreciates the fact that he is new on the local art scene, but he’s absorbing influences and artistic energies like a sponge and it’s obvious the journey being revealed in his mask show is the journey he is on himself.
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