Tuesday, 7 March 2017


Many exhibitions, few remember the woman or the girl child

By margaretta wa Gacheru (posted March 8, 2017)

Kenyan artists are on a roll! (That might be partially why Alliance Francaise is currently exhibiting artworks by nearly 20 local artists in a show entitled ‘Pop and Roll’.)

The number of solo and group exhibitions underway at the moment is impressive indeed!

For instance, Tom Mboya has a one-man show at the British Institute of East Africa. Moses Nyawenda has one up at the United Nations Recreation Centre in Gigeri. Dennis Muraguri has his matatu prints hanging inside the Picazzo Restaurant at The Hub. His prints are just one floor above the mall’s new super-sized steel Coffee Tree by Peter Ngugi, on permanent display in the heart of The Hub.

Allan Githuka has a marvelous solo exhibition at One Off Gallery. Githuka had been working underground in Ngecha for several years, so his current exhibition is welcomed and quite refreshing. It also reflects a subtle refinement of his style and use of color, especially apparent is his glorious landscapes. His blend of thickly textured colors has a magical, almost mesmeric effect. His hills seem almost semi-abstract, as if they could be anywhere after rains, which sadly have been absent in the country for quite some time.

The most prominent group exhibition is ‘Pop and Roll’ at Alliance Francaise where an eclectic set of mainly paintings occupy two floors. According to Alliance’s new director, Cedric , the works have been assembled thematically, according to the Western genre of ‘Pop Art.’ But it’s a stretch to see how Michael Soi’s voluptuous maidens correlate with Alex Njoroge’s weaponized war tanks or Kerosh Kiruri’s Old Wisdom.

Nonetheless, if one looks a bit more carefully, one might see how nearly all the work reflects features of Kenyans’ everyday life.  [Ms1] For instance, a number of artists have painted iconic characters, from Msale’s Fela Kuti and Chinua Achebe, Richard Kuria’s Beatles and Anthony Maina’s exotic white women sirens to Solo’s Wutang Clan, Nduta Kariuki’s flawless portraits of local youth and Kerosh’s aged Old Wisdom covered in wrinkles and wise maxims. Then too, who doesn’t appreciate Muraguri’s Matatus, Bertiers’s life-sized Journalist, Wycliffe Opondo’s wily portraits of urban street life and even Soi’s visual exposes of Nairobi’s ‘no holds barred’ night life.

So it’s okay to take a genre straight from the States and use it to classify Kenyan art. That’s what many art critics and curators do. My qualm with Alliance Francaise isn’t with the quality of the art. It has to do with Alliance breaking with a cultural tradition that it’s established over the past few years in the month of March. This is the month when International Women’s Day used to be celebrated with art that was either by, for or about women and girls.

Alliance’s forgetting that time-honored tradition is a heart breaker to those of us who have treasured this one opportunity in a year when Kenyan women’s art gets exclusively showcased. This year, there’s only Nduta, Joan Otieno and Blaine whose art is on display. Otherwise, there’s only one solo show in town that pays specific tribute to the female gender. Jeffie Magina’s exhibition entitled ‘Butterflies’ at Nairobi National Museum focuses his whole show on the girl child.

Granted Jeffie’s been inspired by his own daughter Ella, aged 4, who’s the subject of many of his more than 50 paintings. Nonetheless, the little girl is seen in various situations, some sweet as when a big brother shares a sport with his little sister; while others are scary as when a little girl weeps while her rapist dresses up to take off.

None of Jeffie’s paintings are devoid of a salient message and even a sensitive story the artist can share if he’s in the Museum’s Creativity Gallery.

What’s most touching about this show is that Jeffie seems to understand the sensitive psyche of the girl child. His girls are either inquisitive or playful, trapped in limited gender conventions, lost in a library filled with books or imagining flying space craft in broad daylight.

Jeffie describes his little girls, not only Ella, as his ‘Butterflies’ whose resemblance to angelic figures is telling. So the Museum exhibition somehow makes up for the forgetfulness of all the other art institutions. I apologize for sounding nostalgic but perhaps next year, those same centres will remember International Women’s Day and celebrate it as Jeffie, Ella and the show’s curator Lydia Galavu have done.

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