Monday, 27 February 2017



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (Posted 28 February)

Even before the owners of The Hub mall in Karen broke ground a few years back, they are thinking about how to integrate the arts into their overall design.

“We’ve been committed to including the arts in The Hub from the outset,” said the Karen mall’s senior manager Jonathan Yach.

That’s why Philippa Nyawera of the Hub and Judy Ogana of The GoDown Art Centre put their heads together back in 2014 to plan what ways they could work together to ensure that commitment was kept. It was Judy who then got hold of any number of Kenyan artists and art centres, inviting them to come to the Hub and think about what they could contribute artistically and significantly to the Hub’s piazza (open air central courtyard,).

“Quite a few artists came up with interesting proposals, but Peter [Ngugi] had an edge over all of them in that he was the only one to present a ‘marquette’ [or miniature three-dimensional model] as well as a concept,” explained Judy who also worked closely with Carol Lees of One Off Gallery which frequently holds exhibitions of Ngugi’s art.

Judy was speaking at the official launch last Thursday (February 23rd) of Ngugi’s ‘Kahawa Tree’, an iconic 32 foot metal statue that he’d been thinking about constructing for quite some time.

“I wanted to celebrate the coffee tree since it has played such an important role [especially as a cash crop] in Kenyan society,” said the artist who also spoke at the launch and had just gotten back from the Lamu Painters Festival where he’d attended a three week art residency with several other Kenyan artists.

“For instance, revenue from coffee sales has educated so many Kenyans,” Ngugi added, admitting he’d felt humbled and privileged to receive the commission to create public art in such an exceptional environment. “It’s like a dream come true,” he confessed, speaking about his art installation.

While conceptualizing his coffee tree, Ngugi said he recalled that in earlier times, Kenyans used to hold community gathering under a tree, which is why he decided to include people to his installation. “There’s a businessman [complete with a briefcase and laptop in either hand], a teacher [also having a tablet] and a family, including a father and son [both of whom have tablets, and the father with earphones],” explained Ngugi who had intentionally given all his characters technical devices “…since that’s where Kenyans are at. They’re very engaged with technology,” he added.

Among the crowd that attended the installation’s launch, one person asked where the mama was since Ngugi’s ‘family’ only featured a father and son. “We deliberated on the family issue and decided specifically to have the father come with his son to the tree,” said Judy who added her role in the project was both consultative (together with the Hub and One Off) and collaborative since she shared ideas with the artist as well.

One feature of the construction that many commented on is the interactive aspect of The Kahawa Tree. “Initially, people didn’t touch Ngugi’s art, but then we saw children climbing up and playing on it. We’ve also seen people come sit and relax on the [Mahogany] bench, and the tree has even become a meeting point for shoppers getting together at The Hub,” added Judy who like Jonathan Yach was delighted the Kahawa Tree had become such an integral and identifiable feature of The Hub.

Ngugi himself has no problem with people interacting physically with his Kahawa Tree. “The internal structure [or skeleton] of the tree truck is made out of galvanized steel so it won’t rust; and the tree as a whole is quite durable,” he said. The bark and bows of the tree as well as the people’s clothes and physical features are all made from soft steel.  The leaves are made by his assembling literally thousands of stainless steel spoons.

“And the red, ripe coffee berries are also made out of soft steel, symbolic of the abundant harvests and good times that we expect in days ahead,” Ngugi added.

Meanwhile, following from the Lamu Arts Festival, some of the artworks by the Kenyan artists who took part in the festival, namely Peter Ngugi, Nduta Kariuki, Boniface Maina, Nadia Wamunyu, Waweru Gichuhi, Zihan Kassam, James Njoroge and Fitsum Berhe Woldebianos, will be exhibited at Kuona Trust in late March. Some will subsequently be showcased in Cape Town at the Nini Gallery from early May.

Alliance Francaise also continues supporting Kenyan artists with its Kenyan Pop 'n Roll exhibition that opened Tuesday night, February 27th.
Finally, the 4th Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction was held last Monday night at the Hotel Intercontinental. For details, see the lead story in BD Life.

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