Portraits of many Kenyan Artists by Dale Webster

Portraits reveal wealth of talent in Kenya’s vibrant art world

Dale Webster’s with self portrait (left); portraits of Michael Soi (top left), Justus Kyalo (centre) and Philipa Hermann-Ndisi (right). Photo/MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

Dale Webster’s with self portrait (left); portraits of Michael Soi (top left), Justus Kyalo (centre) and PhilipaHermann-Ndisi (right). Photo/MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

Dale Webster has been painting and drawing practically all his life, although professionally he’s been a philosopher, art historian and university lecturer up until he came to Kenya four years ago with a mind to finally pursue his real passion — portrait painting.
That passion came to fruition this past weekend when the British artist’s portrait project opened at the Red Hill Art Gallery.
This was not the first time Webster had shown some of his portrait paintings. His recent participation in a group show at Le Rustique focused on ‘‘ordinary’’ Kenyans, hard working men and women whose paintings reflected their resilience and inner strength.
Those same sort of inner feelings are reflected in his Red Hill show, only this time his collection of works represents an impressive constellation of extra-ordinary people, nearly all of who are leading contemporary Kenyan artists.
Several are first class jewellery makers, among them Njee Muturi and Rhodia Mann; a few are photographers like Philipa Hermann-Ndisi and Xavier Verhoest; at least one is a sculptor, Maggie Otieno; another is an installation artist, Jackie Karuti.
And there’s even one glass artist, Nani Croze, who’s created a kind of modern glass art museum at her sprawling home in Maasai-land.
All of them found their way into Webster’s life; all of who one can easily describe as modern-day masters. But the vast majority of the portraits are of painters who Webster rubs shoulders with during exhibition openings like the one hosted at Red Hill by Erica and Hellmuth Musch-Rossler, two retired European public health workers who spent much of their lives working all around Africa before settling on Kenya as the place best suited to start their new career as gallery proprietors.
Hellmuth has been collecting African art for decades and had always dreamed of one day opening a gallery of his own.
That dream, now realised with the support of his wife, was sufficient to have Webster also include Hellmuth in his galaxy of glorious portraits, all of which have an uncanny resemblance to the artists themselves.
But if Hellmuth qualified — as an art curator — to be in this artist-heavy collection, Webster also painted one art connoisseur and ubiquitous Kenyan art collector, Sandeep Desai, in this auspicious exhibition.
One can’t name all the painters that Webster picked to be in his show, people who he claims crossed his path and also agreed to grant him time for a brief sitting wherein he not only sketched but also snapped a few photographs.
Among the painters that he got to agree to take part in his portraiture project were Michael Soi and Thom Ogongo, both are currently exhibiting their own art at Alliance Francaise.
Then there was Beatrice Wanjiku who is also, coincidentally, holding a one-woman show at One Off gallery. There are a wide range of well-known local artists like Patrick Mukabi, Mary Collis, Peterson Kamwathi, Peter Elungat, Justus Kyalo and Anthony Okello; all are among Kenya’s most prominent and globally collected visual artists.
Webster also recognised a number of Pan African painters such as El Tayeb Dawelbeit from Sudan and Ermias Ekube from Eritrea, two artists who easily identified themselves with the Kenyan arts community upon their arrival several years ago.
Webster didn’t set out to paint the ‘‘who’s who’’ of contemporary Kenyan art. He wouldn’t claim to have that kind of clout to reshape the local arts landscape.

What he did do was to offer artists like Boniface Maina and Joseph Cartoon an opportunity to have their portraits painted, which now secures them a place in Kenyan art history as among those who the former art historian (who lectured both at universities of Leeds and Sierra Leone) recognised as special human beings specifically because they are visual artists.
One doesn’t doubt that there are quite a few more local artists who wouldn’t mind finding their way into Webster’s ongoing portraiture project. It’s an easy assumption to make given the overwhelming turnout at Red Hill Gallery last weekend for Webster’s exhibition opening.
Almost every artist whose face was featured in his show came last Sunday; and one could see they were pleased to be included in the collection of art by someone who I believe is one of the finest portrait painters of our time.

 

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