Friday, 16 December 2016


By Margaretta wa Gacheru 17.12.2016

Most Kenyans don’t seem to have much interest in their history. We’re so busy living in the present, interacting with our cell phones and our social media, we don’t have much time to reflect and research into our past.
Francis Nnaggenda's Mother Goddess Africa at Nairobi Gallery

Yet we have been giving some thought to our heroes these days. Yet most of the heroes we celebrate are defined in terms of politics, which is great and important, especially when we are thinking about freedom fighters.

But how often do we think about cultural freedom fighters, artists who came forth to pave the way for our current crop of visual artists, our sculptors and painters as well as those experimenting with various media which is a common theme and interest among Kenyan artists today.

At Nairobi Gallery (just next door to Nyayo House, in the old PC’s headquarters), the art of five East African artists who the exhibition’s curator calls ‘pioneers’ are on display from last Saturday December 17th up to April  2017.

Several of the five are Ugandans, which is understandable given they had their own Fine Arts School way back in the 1930’s. The late British artist Margaret Trowel saw the rich artistic potential among her students at Makerere University. Thus, an art school established in her name created an atmosphere conducive to emerging African artists taking hold and developing that creative capacity.

Ironically, three out of the four Ugandan artists in the East African pioneers show didn’t attend Makerere officially. Only John Odoch Ameny did
and Jak Katarikawe was technically tutored by s Tanzanian lecturer in fine art at the university, Sam Ntiru.

Otherwise, Jak didn’t attend much formal schooling at all. But he had talent which got spotted by another University man who set Jak on the road to a creative arts career. Two of his signed prints are available at the gallery

Francis Nnaggenda got his fine arts training elsewhere before he came to be head of the Fine Art Department at Makerere. He spent quite some time in Kenya and his biggest fan was the former Vice President of Kenya, Joseph Murumbi.

One of Kenya’s earliest art collectors, Murumbi tried to interest his fellow government officials to take sufficient interest in the arts to at least buy a few pieces and at most, help him establish a National Gallery of the Arts in Kenya. But then as now, local politicians were not interest in the arts. In general, their chief concern was and is acquiring power and amassing wealth, which is one reason why Murumbi left politics altogether and devoted his life to promoting Pan African arts, including the works of Nnaggenda and OdochAmeny among many others.

Most of Nairobi Gallery (as well as the ground floor of the National Archives) is dedicated to Murumbi’s collections related to culture and the arts. But Richard Onyango, (the one Kenyan artist in the show) and Sanaa Gateja
were too young to be known or collected by the former VP. Yet both are considered as ‘pioneers’ by Murumbi’s former business partner, Alan Donovan, since both men were recognized artists relatively early in the period now commonly known as contemporary East African art.

Richard has two classic paintings in this show, one of old Mombasa, the other portraying a moment in his life with Drosey, the large English lady who sadly died before the two could be wed. The other is of Old Mombasa (below).

Jak also has just two works in this show; both are prints from an earlier time when his creative energies were at their peak.

Nnaggenda technically has just one painting in the exhibition
however, the sculpture that he created back in the Sixties which had once belonged to Murumbi, is just outside the Pioneer Gallery and is one of the most exquisite examples of sculptural work. Another is the ‘Mother and Child’ stone sculpture that stands at the entrance of Nairobi National Museum.

The most prominent artists in this exceptional show are Gateja and Odoch. Both have been experimenting with unconventional art materials long before the current crop of artists recognized the immense freedom they have to explore and experiment with anything and everything, be it smoke (which Evans Kangethe sometimes works with) to soil, sand, newspaper and scrap metal.

Odoch has made his sculptures with everything from type writer bodies to mobile phones, bike chains and other assorted spare parts. The artist’s genius was early recognized in Nairobi by Donovan who gave him exhibitions at the African Heritage Pan-African Gallery since the 1970s. He was subsequently employed for several years at the AH workshops where he advised on production of art and crafts in even more diverse media.

Meanwhile, Gateja was actually an art dealer before he got into doing art himself. Growing up in Uganda, he came to the Kenya Coast where he opened a successful gallery before he shifted to Nairobi and started working closely with Donovan. But it was after he returned to Uganda in the late 1980s that he began working with women groups who he taught to make paper beads that have now become his main medium of creation.
Twins by Gateja

All the artists have luminous works on display at Nairobi Gallery where the PointZero Coffee House has just launched a monthly book series, starting with Yvonne Adhiambo’s readings of Dust.

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