Wednesday, 26 April 2017



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted april 26, 2017)

Two events have been scheduled this week at Alliance Francaise to commemorate the centenary since the birth of the renowned French filmmaker and anthropologist, Jean Rouch.

Controversial in his lifetime for filming traditional cultural rituals and ceremonies of indigenous Africans, mainly from Francophone West Africa, Rouch was a pioneer and trailblazer who is now considered a man ahead of his time. For while some colonial powers were busy smashing indigenous African cultures, calling them bestial, heathen and primitive, only to be “civilized” by their being made over into Christians, Rouch recognized the value of African culture including their values, practices, cosmologies and traditions.

Rouch was considered radical in his time. Nonetheless, he spearheaded a whole cinematic movement that took the Western world by storm. Called ‘cinema verite’, his style of filmmaking may be seen as an early form of ‘reality programming’. However, unlike reality TV, Rouch wanted to understand African peoples within their own cultural context. And because he was an academic, a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer as well as a filmmaker, his cinema was meant to serve as a scholarly form of research. He aimed to document aspects of a people’s culture which he recognized as dynamic, ever-changing and ephemeral.

The Rouch film that was shown this past Wednesday at Alliance Francaise is one of the Frenchman’s most controversial. Entitled ‘The Mad Masters’ (Les Maitres Fous’), the film documents a specific ceremony practiced by a cult from Ghana known as the Hauke. Rouch managed to gain the trust of the Hauke to such an extent that he was able to film cult followers who were put into a trance-like state where they became “possessed” by the spirits of their colonial officers.

That same night, Rouch’s film was contrasted with a contemporary ethnographic documentary entitled ‘Lukumbe’ (or ‘Knife’ in Bukusu) made by the Kenyan filmmaker, Dennis Machio. Subsequently, there was a discussion between Machio and the Deputy Director of the French Institutefor Research on Africa, Chloe Josse Durand. They explored the similarities and differences between ethnographic films, one by Rouch from the 20th century, the other by Machio from the 21st century.

Tonight, Rouch’s centenary celebrations will extend into a musical realm when two musicians from Mozambique will perform a concert called ‘A Million Things’. Its starting point the cinematic work of Rouch who died in 2004 in Niger, having spent more than 60 years making films in Africa.


Monday, 24 April 2017



BY margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 24, 2017)
Preceding the opening of his solo exhibition this coming Saturday (29th April) at One Off Gallery entitled ‘Black Tie’, Anthony Okello gave an ‘Artist Talk’ organized by The Art Space at Kuona Trust on Monday afternoon.

Okello is an award-winning artist who’s been painting for the last twenty plus years. A graduate of the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art in the 1990s, he recalled that he began by majoring in painting at BIFA but then switched to graphic design. It was a shift he says he didn’t regret.

“I’d always loved to draw, which was good since we had to make sketches upon sketches while in the process of completing [design] projects,” says Okello. “But it was during that course, that I began to really appreciate color which was very important,” he adds.

Okello was among the first group of Kenyan artists to take part in a Bonham’s African Art Auction in London several years back. It was an occasion in ehivh the revenues from the auction went not to the artists but to the African Art Trust, a fund set up to assist fledgling regional art organizations, started by the British art collector Robert Devereux.

Out of the half dozen Kenyans whose art sold at that auction, it was Okello’s that sold for the highest price.

But on Monday, Okello confessed what has given him the most satisfaction as an artist is not the amount of money his artwork has sold for, but the actual process of creating the art itself.

He recalled that probably his finest work had taken him more than five years to create. It was work that he’d produced while giving not a thought to the money it might generate. Instead, he’d created his African mythology series while he “had fire in [his] head’.

The series itself consisted of a series of six monumental paintings, all but one of which had sold and been sent abroad. The sixth one he actually donated to the Nairobi National Museum where it hangs conspicuously today in the Museum’s most prominent staircase.

At least one of those six works had been so massive that it covered all of the walls in the small studio he was renting at the time. He recalled the canvas had stretched possibly seven feet by eight feet and hung from the ceiling right down to the floor. “I used to paint nonstop for three days at a time,” Okello recalled nostalgically.

Noting that some artists like to emphasize how much they suffer as they struggle to sustain themselves, Okello suggested that no suffering could compare to the sort of satisfaction an artist can feel creating work that expresses what he really wants to say.

But he admitted he hadn’t always felt that way. “While I was based at the [Nairobi National] Museum [with Kuona Trust], I used to keep a list of my ‘clients’, meaning the people who used to buy my art. But now I don’t call people ‘clients’ and I don’t keep a list,” he added. Nonetheless, Okello said he’d be forever grateful to all those tourists who’d come to the Museum and bought his art.

The ‘Talk’ on Monday mainly took the form of a question and answer session led by The Art Space’s Wambui Collymore who asked Okello a series of probing questions.

But there were also quite a number of local artists on hand who were eager to ask Okello questions. These resulted in a rousing debate over everything from the effect of money on an artist’s creativity to debate over the role of art organizations like Kuona Trust or the Go Down or other commercial galleries in the qualitative development of an artist’s creativity and career.

Okello was full of praise for the quality of art coming out of Kenyan artists currently. There was no comparison, he said, between what artists were doing even five years ago and what they’re producing now.

Wambui wanted to know Okello’s opinion on where the artists’ [community] should go from here? “What’s the next step?” she asked several times.

The question never quite got answered although at least one artist, Michael Soi, said he felt the art scene had “stagnated” due to some artists having grown too dependent on donor funding and the directions the donor wanted artists to move in.

It was a debate that couldn’t be exhausted in one sitting. But there was little doubt that the artists on hand were grateful to hear the opinions of older, more seasoned artists like Okello, Soi, Thom Ogonga and Beatrice Wanjiku, all of whom shared ideas that younger artists were mostly eager to hear.

Sunday, 23 April 2017



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 23, 2017)

Many things make Boniface Maina’s current exhibition at Nairobi Gallery a special event. First off, it’s not incidental that Boni is the first contemporary Kenyan artist under 30 (apart from Peter Elungat) to exhibit in the Gallery’s one hall devoted to contemporary art and to what the Gallery’s curator, Alan Donovan, calls ‘Veterans’ meaning artists  has known since the 1970s.

The fact the show is entitled ‘Transitions’ speaks to this point. It was Alan who decided to start showcasing younger artists who represent what’s happening in the Kenyan art world right now.

It’s that aspect of timeliness and relevance that also makes Boniface’s show important. It’s important in part because his satiric political portraits, painted with pen and ink and ‘accessorized’ with gold leaf, serve to debunk a common myth about Kenyan art. That is that it’s rarely politically edgy; only decorative ‘art for art’s sake’.

His paintings, although they could seem slightly obtuse to some observers, defy that shallow perspective. His artworks are all steeped in political symbolism that’s not simply satirical but often subtly savage and borderline cynical!

At the opening last Sunday, a number of young Kenyans challenged the notion that his art was cynical. On the contrary, they said, it was “realistic”.

For instance, his portrait of the ‘Poster Boy’ reflects a phenomenon happening right now during these pre-election days. These are the times when politicians are paying poor young people to ignore the signs that say ‘No Posters’ and put theirs up anyway.

It’s significant that from the backside view, the ‘Boy’ looks naked. That’s because the nakedness is symbolic not only of the young man’s poverty, but also of his vulnerability, and thus his exploitability.

It’s noticeable that Boni’s paintings are populated by either prospective voters or candidates. Also that the voters are practically all naked while the political candidates are clothed. The aspirants might only be wearing a hat and underpants as in “Mheshimiwa Returns’ or a bright red tie as in “The Serial Contestant II”. But they’re still better dressed than the voters whose favor they are ferociously seeking during this pre-election time.

It’s true that a few candidates have on a suit as in “Kura ya Mheshimiwa” (He’s also got the hat and red tie.) One even has a fur-collared coat. But he’s also the one pol whose face reflects the artist’s actual feelings for this breed of animal. This ‘mheshimiwa’ has the face of a hungry fox, the kind one used to see in a grim fairy tale like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.

What saves Boni’s show from being simply savage and cynical is the streak of humor that runs through every satirical piece. For instance, he lampoons both political parties, as revealed in his ‘Flag Bearer I’ and ‘Flag Bearer II’. They’re both holding inflated balloons not flags. The NASA one wears an astronaut’s suit, while the Jubilee one has a hat concealing his face.

Several paintings are my favorites. One is ‘’Tyranny of Aspirants’ which is his most salient satiric piece on the plastering of posters all over Eastlands. Another is his dancing politician doing ‘The Political Dab’, which most pols are now doing after seeing it performed by the Big Man.

Finally, his “Kings and the Golden Vote” is possibly Boni’s wittiest. The two gold-leaf footprints in the centre of the work are surrounded by outlines of crowns, suggesting every candidate aspires to be a king.

In this regard, ‘Transitions’ isn’t just about Kenyan elections. It seems to be relevant to elections everywhere in the world.

Saturday, 22 April 2017



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 22, 2017)

Naomi van Rampelberg has a remarkable pedigree.

Her mother, Chelenge is a wonderful Kenyan sculptor whose work is full of surrealistic surprises that never fail to amaze and arouse deep esteem. Her Belgian father, Marc is equally inspired although his focus has tended to be more on functional art that he beautifies. His home furnishings are smooth, sleek polished wooden works of art that have the added value of being items that have utility whether in the workplace or in the house.

Yet genetics ultimately can never explain the imaginative grace of this inspired Kenyan artist whose current glass art exhibition at One Off Gallery is fittingly entitled ‘Aglow’. It’s fitting because light plays such an important part in illuminating the delicate detail that Naomi has clearly put into her preparations for this exhibition, the second she has had at One Off in the last two and half years.

Her previous show also had glass art in it. But as it was called ‘Echoes’, so it had reverberated with artistic ideas reflected not only in glass but also in paper collage and exquisitely designed jewelry.

In ‘Aglow’, which closes later this week to make way for the opening of Anthony Okello’s latest works from this Saturday, Naomi concentrates on the one genre, glass art that’s so highly detailed and delicately hand painted that each piece is a precious work of art.

It doesn’t matter if she’s worked on a wine bottle, comely flower vase, glass decanter with matching wine glasses or even a pudgy punch bowl, what counts are the carefully placed and perfectly aligned glass painted dots on every piece. Each one has a magical effect, one that reminds one of the surprise her mother’s sculptures elicit and the impeccable perfection that her father’s smooth polished wooden surfaces showcase.

Nonetheless, it’s her exquisite encasements of light that arouse the most awe-inspiring emotions. To call them ‘lamp shades’ is an inaccurate term although they perform a similar service in that they rule out any direct glare from a humble light bulb. But the effect of her delicately aligned dabbles of color on glass fittings, be they spherical or half-curved, is to set the tone for a whole room to feel the effect of Naomi’s magic.

Her glass ‘fittings’ are one of the most marvelous features of her Aglow show, so one needs to make a dash to One Off this week before Naomi’s show shuts down and her lovely light goes off.

Friday, 21 April 2017



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 21, 2017)

Lupito Nyong’o is not the only one to react with sorrow to the alarming set of images posted on Twitter last Wednesday (April 19) by one of Kenya’s leading stage and screen actors, Mugambi Nthige. The images of auctioneers loading up boxes filled with costumes, props and electronic equipment out in front of the Professional Centre went viral on social media following Mugambi’s tweet.

But just as it was easy to assume Mugambi had snapped those shots himself (probably on a smart phone), so it was just as likely the well-known actor was sharing a fact when he added “Phoenix Players has shut down.”

In reality, it was Tim King’oo, Phoenix’s acting Stage Manager, not Mugambi, who had taken those shots and posted them on the What’s App site ‘Phoenix Rising.’ “Mugambi must have lifted them from there,” notes another Phoenix stalwart, its acting Administrative officer, Brenda Muthoni, who’s been working for the Players since 2015.

“It’s understandable, looking at those images, to assume as Mugambi did, that Phoenix Players was finished, but it’s not,” Muthoni says.

She concedes the current arrears owed to their landlord, APSEA (short for Association of Professional Societies of East Africa) which owns Professional Centre, is a whopping Sh3.8 million. What’s more, that sum doesn’t include the bill sent from Dews Traders auctioneers for services rendered last Wednesday amounting to another Sh120,495.

But neither Muthoni nor King’oo nor the newly-constituted Phoenix Board are prepared to concede the demise of Phoenix. Ironically, neither are a myriad of well-wishers who have come out on social media suggesting something had to be done to save the Players.

“Yet where were all those well-wishers when we needed them,” asks Anita Ngugi, Phoenix’s previous marketing manager. “We had even hoped Lupita would come to see a show at Phoenix when she came to Kenya some time ago,” Anita adds, recalling as Lupita had tweeted, her [award-winning] career had actually begun with her acting with Phoenix Players

Yet just as Mugambi noted in his initial tweet, Phoenix has gone through many years of woe. Indeed, since its inception in 1982, when the late James Falkland and Peri Bhakoo registered Phoenix Players Ltd., the company has struggled. Annual membership combined with ticket sales had previously sustained repertory theatre, including the Players’ predecessor, Donovan Maule Theatre. But as membership numbers and corporate support dwindled, and the Government didn’t see the economic value of Kenya’s creative economy, times got even tougher.

Yet according to Muthoni, further complications compounded Phoenix’s recent woes. She and others have claimed the Players’ current problems are also due to major “mismanagement issues.” Stories of actors and directors not getting paid are rife. So are stories of actors announcing they’d never work at Phoenix again unless the management changed.

Ironically, David Opondoe, who was General Manager at the time, says he quit Phoenix two years back. Yet he admits he’s still the sole signatory of the Players’ Barclays Bank account.

“We don’t even know how much is in that account,” says Muthoni. Apparently, it is only the previous Board which appointed Opondoe back in 2013, that can change the signatory. Yet according to Opondoe, that Board no longer exists. The previous board chairman, Nani Njoroge had officially resigned as did other board members, including Peter Nduati, Lorna Irungu, Mugambi Nandi and Engineer Kingangi.

With no Board of Directors, no General Manager and no access to the Players’ bank account, it was not a surprise to receive an eviction letter from APSEA in November 2016.

“I took the initiative to email the previous board and informed them about the [eviction] letter,” says Muthoni who got a scathing phone call from Opondoe who she hadn’t seen or heard from in over a year.

But from then on, Tim King’oo and Muthoni have been holding meetings with thespians who’ve previously been affiliated with Phoenix and who sincerely want to see the Theatre company survive.

According to Phoenix Players’ Articles of Association, a new board had to be elected by paid-up members. But as all the previous memberships had elapsed, Tim and Muthoni had to recruit new members willing to pay the Sh1000 membership fee. It was those members who subsequently elected a six-person board which is already planning the first fund-raiser production that Mugambi Nthige mentioned in one of his subsequent tweets last week.

“It’s true we’ll have to find a new venue and set a date, but Phoenix Players intends to stage August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean’, co-directed by Sahil Gada and myself,” says Tim King’oo who’d directed Wilson’s ‘Fences’ a year ago at the Phoenix.

“If the Phoenix is ever going to rise again, it’s got to be now,” adds Martin Githinji, one of the Players’ long-standing supporter and passionate member of Kenya’s theatre community.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017



By margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 19, 2017)

David Thuku wasn’t the only Kenyan artist creating sketches and a three-dimensional model for consideration by the Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel which was getting set to celebrate its 120th anniversary since the founding father of the luxury hotels, Berthold Kempinski, opened the first family business back in Berlin, Germany in 1897.

But Thuku was the only artist to come up with a design that was both contemporary and conceptually intriguing as well as being colorful and compatible with the elegant front foyer and lobby of the Hotel.

On the one hand, Thuku’s chandelier-like collection of multi-colored square frames might be mistaken for a playful children’s toy since nearly all the 120 frames are interconnected like a child’s game. But at the same time, this intricate assortment of color-coded geometric forms are carefully hung from the Hotel’s high ceiling so that they seem to be cascading down towards the classical marble fountain situated as the very center of the foyer.

Thuku calls his hanging installation ‘Cycles of Light’ which is a title and concept inspired by the Hotel’s anniversary theme, namely ‘Ignite the Night.’ “It’s a theme shared among all 74 Kempinski Hotels, all of which commissioned artwork from a local artist,” says Shikha Nayar, the Nairobi Kempinski’s E-Commerce Manager. She adds that most of the 74 are located in major European cities although a number of newer hotels have come up in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Ironically, she says Kempinski has no hotels on the North American mainland, although they are just about to open one in Havana Cuba!

As for Africa, the Villa Rosa Kempinski, launched in 2014, is not the first established in the region. “We have two in Kenya, one in Nairobi, the other in Maasai Mara,” says Shikha. “But we also have hotels in Cairo, Kinshasa, Djibouti and Accra.”

On April 8th at exactly 6:30pm all 74 Kempinski Hotels turned on lights meant symbolically to ‘Ignite the Night’ and illuminate all the artworks created especially for the 120th anniversary celebration.

“At the same time, the [Nairobi] Hotel switched on the fountain beneath the ‘cycles of light’ which had a dazzling effect,” recalls Thuku who had carefully hung four six-sided mirror cubes at the base of his ‘chandelier’.

“The effect of the flowing fountain water combined with the four ceiling lights that were simultaneously switched on was something special to see,” adds the artist who says he had help on various details from friends his home studio at Brush tu Art.  

(The section below didn't appear in the paper but the rich details that Thuku shared were worth remembering:)

Describing his installation as a collaborative piece, Thuku says he worked with Kempinski technicians who helped him especially with the lighting above the piece. "all four lights were on either side of the piece," he says.

Explains that the spray-painted squares were all made out of wood, three corners of which he used screws and super glue to assemble, Thuku adds that in order to interconnect each piece he'd left that last side open until it was time for the final assemblage of the art.

Having used 12 colors (which meant he painted 10 sets of colored frames), he says he used black and white as well as three shades of blue, two shades of green, two shades of yellow and one of purple, red and pink.

"what I realized after I had decided to use the 12 colors was that the ten sets could symbolize the decades," he adds.

"I also created six different sizes of squares so as to signify growth and development of the enterprise," the artist noted.

But the final challenge for him was figuring out how he was going to install his installation. But with the help of friends Abdul and Lincoln at Brush tu Art, he was able to create metallic rings and a strong set of chains that enabled him to have his sculpture be effectively suspended.

"We were able to suspend it from the ceiling but we ultimately had to wind the metal chain around a sturdy metal pipe that was above the ceiling. that way the whole structure was secure."


BY MARGARETTA WA GACHERU (posted  april 19, 2017)

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the most ambitious musicals ever staged in Nairobi. It was especially so given the way the show’s director Stuart Nash insisted it be set to live (not pre-recorded) music. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score also isn’t easy but Nash was fortunate to find the Kenya National Youth Orchestra up to the challenge. And the Kenya National Theatre the perfect venue for this spectacular Easter holiday event.

There were many other reasons why JCS wasn’t easy to stage. First off, there’s Webber’s unconventional interpretation of the story which might not have been to everybody’s taste. Then there’s the fact that the costuming was contemporary and casual. Only the high priests were decked out in ornamental robes. King Herod was also dressed in a bright golden gown. But again, some may have wondered why Nash cast a woman in that male role. Once you saw how forcefully Mkamzee MwatelaM played Herod’s part, you could understand why this marvelous actress was specially selected for the part.

The fact that Herod’s guards frolicked (as if in a can-can chorus line) with their ‘King’ wearing nothing but a matching gold mini-skirt also might have been unsettling for orthodox or fundamentalist Christian followers.

So to fully appreciate the production, one had to come with a wide open mind, prepared for a show full of surprises. For instances, one might expect a musical to be replete with rich, well-trained voices. Unfortunately, the only truly beautiful voice was Miriam Nyokabi’s who as Mary Magdalene was a joy to listen to.

Dan Aceda playing the title role of Jesus was the one professional singer in the show. However, the musical range required to sing Jesus’ part was immense and slightly beyond Aceda’s. Nonetheless, once he got comfortable on stage (and KNT’s technical team got the sound system right), his character was far more convincing and charismatic than he was on opening night.

It was Mugambi Nthega as Judas who proved that even with an imperfect voice, if one performed with electrifying energy and the acting capacity that Mugambi clearly has, the actor could carry his musical role with the passion, persuasive power and conflicted pain that Judas clearly had.  Indeed, the most emotive moments in the show were when Judas connected with Jesus, especially when he came to kiss the man who’d once been his closest friend.

Both Jesus and Judas knew the kiss signaled a treacherous betrayal. And probably Aceda’s most sensitive scene was when his Jesus was alone in the Garden of Gethsemane sharing his deepest thoughts with God. He was clearly agonized, knowing what torturous times were about to come.

The horror of Jesus’ torture at the hand of Pilate’s soldiers and at the prodding of the Pharisees was graphically portrayed in this production of events leading up to and including the crucifixion.

Ultimately my only problem with JCS was not the cast, crew or orchestra’s performance. It was with Webber’s script which closed with the finality of Jesus’ death and without a hint of redemptive resurrection.

Obviously, this is my problem alone, but I would have loved to see a bit of improvisation on Nash’s part to give us a slightly more joyful ending. After all, some folks see the Easter story as pure fiction anyway. But Nash is a professional who had to be true to the playwright’s script which, in fact remained true to the scriptural text. Only that one couldn’t tell in the end if Jesus was merely a man or the son of God.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 18, 2017)

Digital artist Barbara Muriungi was just one of the nearly 30 artists and artisans showing their wares last weekend at the K1 Flea Market inside the K1 Club House on Ojijo Road.

The Flea Market is only three months old, according to Kaz Lucas, who in addition to being a popular singer, actress and co-host of the ‘positive sex’ podcast called ‘The Stream’ is also the ‘event’s organizer’ who designed and opened the Market together with K1 Club House director, Sammy Kahama.
      Front row: K1 Club House Director Sammy Kahama and K1 Flea Market organizer Kaz Lucas

Yet in spite of its being nearly brand new, the Market has already become a popular venue that arts venders are clamoring to book a space in so they can show off their specialty crafts, foods, casual fashions and accessories.
         Mother - daughter team display infinity scarves, ribbons and leather bags at K1 Flea Market

Last Sunday’s exhibitors displayed an eclectic assortment of items. They came with everything from fresh tree tomato jams and junk art jewelry to digital art prints, miniature potted plants and children’s books all written and illustrated by Kenyans.

Then there was the live music by the band Afro-sync that only added to the festive, party-like energy that permeated the K1 Flea Market.

Right outside the Market, one can also see a colorful trail of graffiti art created by a host of graffiti specialists including Bankslave, Swift, Kirosh, BSQ and Bantu among others. It snakes its way out of the Market and past the Club House Pub, the Hotel and the K1 garden until you reach the auto exit where one finds almost 100 metres of brick wall all covered in spray-painted stories about Nairobi, Kenyan Independence and one special Kenyan hero.

The central image on the wall, and the one Sammy Kahama is most proud of, is an exquisite larger-than-life portrait of the late, great Professor Wangari Maathai painted by Bankslave (aka Brian Esendi).

“We wanted to commemorate Kenya’s first Nobel laureate who worked so hard to save the trees and the environment,” said Kahama. “Just look at what’s been happening to our forests since she left us. So this wall is our tribute to her,” he added.

There are several artistic touches to the Club House and Market that also have an immediate appeal. The colorful flag-like streamers above the Market’s hand-carved entrance sign send out a silent signal that this is where the action is.

Then there’s the long corridor past the picnic-tabled pub with its high vaulted ceiling covered in bright beautiful umbrellas hung upside down. Kaz claims having come up with this gracious accent that offers one more welcoming sign implicitly rousing curiosity as to what comes next.

That’s when you see all the assorted tables, some with spicy sauces and dips, others with cotton and hessian cushions stuffed with Mitumba t-shirts and finally, the wind chimes made out of everything from stainless steel spoons, metal pipes and pastel colored glass.

All told, the quirky assortment of artsy venders makes the K1 Flea Market a Sunday afternoon ‘must’ just because you’ll never know in advance what original items that will be on hand to feast one’s eyes or tummy on.

Friday, 14 April 2017


By margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 14, 2017)
Owen Maseko at opening of his Sibathontisele exhibition at Goethe Institute

Owen Maseko was only eight years old when forces representing the newly independent Zimbabwean government came to his home area of Matabeleland and inflicted torture, murder and mayhem on the men, women, children and even babies believed to be opponents of President Robert Mugabe.

Yet despite more than 30 years having passed, memories of those traumatic times, known as the Gukurahundi Massacres are still fresh in many people’s minds.

What’s more, they’ve filled a full installation by Maseko complete with black and blood-red canvases, life-size sculptures of torture victims and Gukurahundi-defining graffiti, all of which retell a story the Mugabe regime would just as soon forget.

So emphatically does the regime want to erase from memory that which Mugabe once called “a moment of madness” (which lasted from 1983-1987) that it banned Maseko’s 2010 ‘Sibathontisle’ exhibition from ever seeing the light of a full day.

The show actually opened at the Bulaweyo National Art Gallery for less than 24 hours after which the artist was charged with various offenses that could’ve got him jailed for up to 20 years.

Fortunately, he worked with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and was only detained a week. But his exhibition was locked up until 2015 and permanently banned from ever being shown in the country.

It’s Maseko’s Sibathontisele show that was opened last Tuesday night at Goethe Institute and which will be up in GI’s auditorium until May 5th.

“We’re grateful to Goethe for opening up its space to Owen’s exhibition,” says Joost Fontaine, Director of the British Institute of East Africa (BIEA) who’d initially been contacted by Maseko.

“Ever since Owen’s art was released [It had been inaccessible to him for five whole years], he’s wanted to exhibit it outside Zimbabwe since the Gukurahundi Massacres are little known,” adds Dr Fontaine, an anthropologist who’d done extensive research in Zimbabwe before joining BIEA, which is why Maseko reached out to him.

“Thirty-four years may seem like a long time,” says Maseko. “But our people are still traumatized after tens of thousands of Ndebele people were tortured and slaughtered.”

That emotional duress comes across powerfully in his exhibition which fills the whole of Goethe’s auditorium where all the walls are drenched in blood-red paint. They’re also covered in black graffiti wherever the walls are not hung with giant red and black canvases that reveal instances of horror, torture and cruelty inflicted by the Zimbabwean Army’s notorious 5th Brigade on ordinary peasants.

Owen explains the 5th Brigade was especially trained in torture techniques in North Korea. The tactics included everything from hanging people by their feet and then kicking them in their heads to burning homes with owners inside and rounding up school children, then leaving them to scorch in the hot lethal sun.

Owen adds the soldiers only stopped the slaughter after Ndebele leader, the late Joshua Nkomo, agreed to sign a ‘peace accord’ which the artist portrays both on canvas and with one of his three sculptural installations in which Nkomo (who’s also drenched in bright red paint) is seated signing the so-called peace accord.

Owen’s days of designing and exhibiting political art in Zimbabwe seem to be over for now. He remains based in Bulawayo, making music and shaping ceramics to make ends meet. But he hopes to share his Sibathonisele show with a wider public beyond his homeland so the world won’t forget the unforgivable pain inflicted on the Ndebele people by the Mugabe regime.   

Monday, 10 April 2017



By margaretta wa gacheru (posted 11 April 2017)

So many group and solo exhibitions of art opened this past week in Nairobi that it was practically impossible to see and appreciate them all.

Among the most impressive group show was one at Delta House curated by Kigen Elsdart featuring a good number of young, up-and-coming local artists, many like Kigen are graduates of Kenyatta University’s fine art department.

Then at Nairobi Museum, the ‘Future Africa Visions in Time’ (FAVT) show is a multifaceted assemblage of everything from photography, installations, performances, videos, soundscapes, roundtable discussions and books. On every day through 18th April, the exhibition is a collaborative effort among Goethe Institute, National Museum, University of Bayreuth in Germany and British Institute of East Africa among others. Among the Kenyans exhibiting in FAVT are James Muriuki, Syowia Kyambi, John Kamicha and Ato Malinda. Others come from Europe and the States as well as a range of Kenyan academics.

The third important group exhibition is entitled ‘Facing the Climate’ featuring cartoonists from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Sweden. Another collaborative initiative by the Swedish Institute, Swedish Embassy in Kenya and Buni Media, the show was curated by Victor Ndula and features thought-provoking cartoons by our own Gado, Madd, Celeste, Gammz and Victor himself.

At Kuona Trust, there’s a trio of East African artists who’ve been part of ‘Airbrush’, Brush tu Art Studio’s artists residency which ends this week. Lukwago Saad and Kasagga Jude are Ugandan artists who showcased a small fraction of their colorful and captivating paintings produced during their three months working at Brush tu. Tanzanian sculptor Safina Kimbokota is also one of the trio who took part in the residency. Working with metals and fabrics, Safina’s lifesize sculptures are powerful expressions of her views on natural beauty and the African woman.

There are also two shows by dynamic duos. Sebawali Sio and Jazzani Minae’s paintings were up last week at Shifteye Gallery but in a fortnight the two will bring back their work to The Metta at 14 Riverside Drive. And at Lord Erroll, the Art Space is having another Pop-Up exhibition by Kenyatta University Art lecturer Anne Mwiti together with Joe Makeni.

Finally, if that wasn’t enough to keep one busy, there were always the solo exhibitions. One was at Polka dot Gallery by Patrick Kinuthia, another by Wilber Mazemu at the British Institute while Naomi van Rampelberg’s Glass Art is up through April at One Off Gallery as are the installations by Rehema Chachage at Circle Art Gallery.

But the one solo exhibition that intrigued me most opened early this week at Red Hill Gallery. Onyis Martin has been on an intensely experimental artistic journey over the past few years. But of all the shows I’ve seen his artwork in, none has felt more honest, authentic and revealing as this one, entitled ‘be-com-ing’.

The show is made up of paintings on canvas, pen and ink drawings on watercolor paper and an installation including a life-size fiberglass sculpture standing inside what might conceivably be a wrought-iron rod prison cell. But then as one examines the tools surrounding the metal structure, such as the shovel, pick axe, clay tiles and paint can, one must reconsider: is it a jail cell or a construction site?

Seeing it as a construction site with a partially-completed man missing a head, half-attached genital and torso covered in posters advertising plastic surgery and pills to enhance certain body parts, one might even see the fiberglass man as a construction site. Then the installation itself becomes a metaphor for the construction (or social construction) of identity. It’s a process that Onyis has apparently been going through himself. Quite interesting, agreed!          


By margaretta wa Gacheru (posted (posted April 11, 2017)

Kenyans don’t need to be convinced that global warming and climate change are real. They experience them every day, be it as drought or floods, crop failure or famine.

Kenyans know climate change is not ‘fake news’, nor is it a hoax. But it has taken the world decades to understand first hand that climate change is not only real but it’s a man-made phenomenon that is causing what may be irreparable harm.

The Swedes are especially sensitive to Climate Change since they were the first to hold an international conference in Stockholm on the topic way back in 1972.  Unfortunately, few governments took it seriously at the time. Neither did many ordinary people since the effects of global warming were not so pronounced then as they are today.

Sweden had a second international conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 and ever since then, the Swedish Institute has been working with cartoonists to raise awareness and ideally affect change in both government policies and public’s consciousness.

Between 2009 and 2016, SI in collaboration with Swedish cartoonists assembled over a hundred cartoonists from five continents to create cutting edge cartoons that could convey the Global Warming message. The reason SI focused on the cartoon is because the Swedes believe that humor and satire are the best ways to raise awareness and persuade a wider public to think more deeply about the problem without getting defensive or denying the facts.

Currently, the Swedish Institute together with the Swedish Embassy in Kenya have enlisted some of Kenya’s finest cartoonists to create an inspired exhibition entitled ‘Facing the Climate.’ The Swedes selected Buni Media to work closely with and Buni called upon one of our most esteemed cartoonists, Victor Ndula, to curate the collection which includes mainly pen and ink drawings on paper by cartoonists from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Sweden.

Victor has put together an awesome exhibition that includes Kenyan cartoonists like Gado, Madd , Celeste, Gammz and Victor himself among others. Personally, I found our Kenyan cartoonists the most expressive, satirical and clear in conveying the message as well as the urgent foreboding that can ensue if humans don’t change their ways fast and work towards reversing all the destructive short-sighted policies and practices that are not only polluting our air, rivers, lakes and oceans but killing our crops, livestock and whole eco-systems.

Last Thursday night, the Swedish Ambassador to Kenya gave an excellent introduction to the exhibition. And by inviting UNEPs chief Scientist Dr. Jacqueline McGlade to underscore the magnitude of the problem of global warming, the message came home loud and clear that time is running out and if we don’t act quickly, we may arrive at an apocalyptic moment when it’s already too late to revive Mother Earth and reverse the lethal consequences of ignoring our duty to the planet as well as to humanity and all living beings.



By margaretta wa Gacheru (

Zereniti House only opened its gates two years ago after intensive work by Jazzani Minae and his mother Susan to perform an ‘extreme make-over’ of the family’s five acre piece of land in Red Hill, not far from Limuru.

“We renovated and extended the [two-story] stone house, adding four new apartments, an extra floor, and enlarging the kitchen,” says Jazz who returned home from the States specifically to assist his mother to rehab the house and beautify the land.
“We also did lots of landscape gardening,” adds Zereniti’s Creative Director as we cruise up an elegant tree-lined Mazera stone driveway.

On our way to the house (once the headquarters of a 1000 acre colonial farm called ‘Updown’) we pass what Jazz calls the ‘Frangipani Garden’ since that ground has a huge Frangipani tree on it, surrounded by land covered in ultra-green Zimbabwe grass.
  Jazzani stands with one of the oldest Jacaranda trees in Kenya, a popular party place
On the other side of the driveway is the ‘Jacaranda Garden’, which is a site Jazz says is popular for many kinds of parties, from cocktail receptions to music concerts. “We decided to curtail the concerts somewhat since the neighbors weren’t happy with the noise,” says Jazz who oversees virtually every detail and department of Zereniti.
The Jacaranda Garden has become an especially popular site for wedding receptions and actual weddings as well. The tree provides cooling shade and it also has a cultural appeal. “The Jacaranda itself is one of oldest [and grandest] of its kind in Kenya,” says Jazz who has cobbled the ground around the tree with more Mazera stone.
“Newly-weds often spend their weekends with us since we also have [elegant] self-contained apartments,” he says. “I’ve been busy every weekend with weddings since last October up through Valentine’s Day.”

The drought hadn’t been kind to the trees at Zereniti. But Jazz, like most Kenyan farmers, is grateful for the rains that finally came late last week. At the same time, he and his mother (who’s a retired agricultural economist formerly with the Food and Agriculture Organization) planted plenty of succulents on the far side of the house which can withstand drought.
Pointing to a whole cluster of cacti, he says the family thought long and hard about what to do after constructing larger sanitation facilities (to accommodate the new apartments). They wanted to gracefully conceal the old septic tank. This they did by planning and planting the so-called ‘Rock Garden’ which they filled with more colorful plants interspersed with smooth rocks.
They also added succulents on one side of the rocks. On the other side is the new sanitation facility which is also surrounded with exotic and indigenous plants. They ensure that instead of being an eye-sore, the sun-kissed flowers will serve as another attraction of Zereniti.

All of those multicolored clusters are at the top of a gentle stone-paved slope leading past the ‘Herb Garden’ and down to the spacious carpark which is lined with tall pine trees. “One set of previous owners were Swedes who planted the long line of pines leading down to the tree nursery,” says Jazz, adding that the carpark can comfortable hold up 80 vehicles!  
The nursery is meant to ensure Zereniti can consistently enhance the greenery on the grounds. “We envisage Zereniti being a kind of quiet retreat where people can come relax and be creative. We called the place Zerenit because we thought of Zen as one way of achieving serenity, and that’s what we’d like for people to feel when they come to stay here.”

Wednesday, 5 April 2017


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 5, 2017)

Tracing their lineage and then translating it into art is the tack taken by two East African artists who both happen to be exhibiting in Nairobi currently.

Dickson Kaloki’s interpretation of his research, entitled ‘Changing Rooms’, takes shape in an installation including a mysterious box surrounded by colorful semi-abstract paintings at Kuona Trust.

Meanwhile, the Tanzanian artist Rehema Chachage’s visual translation of her research, entitled ‘Mlango wa Navushiku’ (at Circle Art through April 18), also takes the form of an installation, only hers includes video, still photography, a bathtub and a digital art light show.

Both exhibitions are conceptual in that each addresses the issue of the artist’s identity. Each show includes concepts associated with cultural practices of their respective communities. They also examine the implications and applications that those traditional beliefs and practices may have in the present-day.

The amazing commonality between Kaloki and Rehema relates to their both arriving at a stage in their lives when ‘identity’ became a powerful concern to investigate in depth. The ‘who am I?’ moment apparently hit them around the same time.

What’s also remarkable is that both chose a similar strategy for seeking out solutions to their identity issues. Both went looking for their grandmothers, each of whom was clearly a masterful storyteller who happily imparted her knowledge and experience to her inquisitive grandchildren.

Both artists saw their elders as respected repositories of wisdom and indigenous knowledge. Moreover, that knowledge could easily have been lost without curious characters like Kaloki and Rehema recognizing their elders as inspirational and informative storytellers.

So even before appraising the aesthetic value of their creative expression, both artists deserve commendation for looking within (not outside) their respective cultures for inspiration and primary source material. It’s in contrast to a number of other artists who are less keen on authenticity and more convinced that Western art trends and traditions are superior to their own.

One difference between the artists is that while both interview their grandma’s in her mother tongue, Rehema’s mum translated the text into English while Kaloki invited a friend to translate KiKamba into English.

The other big difference between the two shows (apart from the difference in artistic media and genre) is that Rehema is specifically interrogating traditional practices and beliefs that historically have impacted the lives of women.

Kaloki more generally explores the way cultural concepts repeat themselves down the generations and shape the way people see. It’s an idea he conceived as a box encompassing the head of every being portrayed in his art.

Ultimately, it’s the grandmothers who are the stars of these shows which are extraordinarily similar yet distinctly unique.

Meanwhile, the other artistic genre that’s implicitly infused with meaning is the cartoon. But in contrast to conceptual art, cartoons are created specifically to be visually clear, direct and palatable to the general public. They’re often spiced with sassy satire and salty humor.

That’s why the Swedish Institute chose to team up with cartoonists following the 2009 Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change to rouse public awareness of this manmade phenomena and the consequences of ignoring this global problem.

Between ’09 and 2016, more than 115 cartoonists from five countries joined the ‘Facing the Climate’ collection and campaign.

Since yesterday, ‘Facing the Climate’ cartoons went on exhibition at Alliance Francaise featuring Kenyan cartoonists Gado, Madd, Celeste and Victor Ndula together with others from Sweden, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

The exhibition’s been produced by the Swedish Embassy and Buni Media, and curated by Victor Ndula and Magnus Bard.



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 6, 2017)

Tonight is when Jesus Christ Superstar: the musical opens at Kenya National Theatre. With its star-studded cast, impeccable direction by Stuart Nash and the full National Youth Orchestra providing live rock music (which is still fresh and funky), the show is bound to be a theatrical highpoint of 2017.

Meanwhile, another brilliant live musical was staged all last week at KNT. Bei ya Jioni may not have the most subtle storyline. It’s all about two politicians contesting for a leadership post [in the church] who resort to nefarious means to ensure they get the position.

One resorts to bribery. The other hires a gang of thugs who specialize in acting strategically and covertly on their paymaster’s behalf. The winner is supposed to be elected ‘democratically’. But of course the election process is rigged leading to the ‘loser’ unleashing his thugs to inflict chaos on ordinary wananchi. In the end, the perpetrators of the violence cynically promise to usher in an era of peace and reconciliation.

The correlations between Bei ya Jioni’s church ‘wedding committee’ elections and Kenya’s past national elections are obvious. For me, it’s what makes John ‘JJ’ Juma’s original musical a show that ought to be seen by all Kenyans as it graphically illustrates the tragic consequences that can ensue if the upcoming national elections proceed as they have done in the past.

So whatever the Chatterbox musical may lack in subtly, it makes up for not just in Juma’s dynamic directing and skillful scriptwriting; but also with its incredibly high-octane choreography, swagger in acting (especially on the part of Fiona Kaitesi, Vince Matinde and Morris Mucheru) and overall coordination of the sizeable cast and superlative rock band and vocalists.

The premise and sub-plot of Bei ya Jioni is preparation for a wedding between Kizzy (Ana Mwende Wambu) and Lawi (Yusuf Ang’asa). But their story’s relevance primarily comes out when bride and groom-to-be side with opposing committee candidates. Lawi’s sides with the loser and tragically becomes ‘collateral damage’ during the violent chaos.

The last words in the show come from Kizzy who gives an impassioned plea to not let politics destroy another life. Implicitly, it’s obvious she’s not just speaking about her lost love Lawi. She’s alluding to her country and confirming Bei ya Jioni is a cautionary tale meant to rouse Kenyans to ensure the damage done in 2007-8 doesn’t ever happen again.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 4 April 2017)

One doesn’t need to be an art critic, art historian or millionaire to buy contemporary African art. But according to Lara Ray, gallerist at the Polkadot Gallery in Karen, what you do need is to think about whether you’d be happy having that artwork occupying a space in your house.

Whether the piece is to hang on your wall (as a painting, photograph or print) or be installed somewhere in your home (be it a sculpture, wind chime or stained glass window), it needs to be something that elicits good vibrations when you see it.

“Buying a work of art is a very personal thing,” says Lara who as her gallery’s curator regularly selects art that she feels people will like. “It’s all about making an emotional connection with the work. Then you can go research the artist before you decide to buy their art,” she added.

Dana Seidenberg concurs with Lara. She says she bought her Cityscape by the late Omosh Kindeh (aka Eric Omondi) because she loved it from the moment she first saw it on display in Westlands.

“I saw it again in Omosh’s studio at Kuona Trust and again I felt it ‘spoke to me’,” Dana said.

Describing herself as an environmentalist concerned with three key issues that Omosh captured beautifully in his art, Dana said his Cityscape conveyed the concepts of “income inequality, overpopulation and poor city planning.”

But James Muriuki, who recently judged the Manjano art competition, said the emotional connection between the artwork and the prospective buyer is just one of several criteria that should be considered when buying African art.

“There’s also the consideration of workmanship and quality of presentation,” said Muriuki who’s also a professional photographer and a former curator at the now defunct RaMoMa Gallery..

Heinrich Rossler-Musch, the gallerist and owner of Red Hill Gallery shares many of the same sentiments as Lara, James and Dana. He says first and foremost, someone has to like, or even love, a work of art before they think of buying it.

“My decision to buy a work of African art is usually one I’d describe as ‘emotionally ad hoc’,” said the retired German bio-chemist and former pharmacist.

Like the others, he admits buying art is often based on emotion. It’s got to “feed the soul,” in the words of the Kenya-based English painter Sophie Walbeoffe.

Hellmuth adds the quality of execution is a key factor in buying art. “Then there’s the aesthetic value and the conceptual meaning of the art. Does it convey a message, and if so, what kind?”

Becoming a serious art collector in the 1990s, Hellmuth admits he initially bought African art that he loved. “It was only later that I began to think about the investment potential of the art, which I now see as something to consider more seriously.”

At the recent Contemporary and Modern East African Art Auction, nearly half the artworks auctioned off had been previously owned by someone who wanted to ‘cash in’ on their artwork’s investment potential. In most cases, those silent sellers who’d given up their art for auction were delighted with the results.

“It was a win-win situation,” says one happy seller whose only regret is she possibly should have held onto the painting a bit longer. “If I’d waited a while, its market value might be more than what I got this time round,” she wonders.

Carol Lees has been curating contemporary African art at One Off Gallery since the 1990s so she knows quite a bit about how to buy the art.

“First, you should go to as many places where the art is being shown as possible. See what you’re attracted to, and then go on the internet and research the artist, where he or she’s exhibited in the past; in what sort of projects have they been involved; and what sort of prices their artworks sell for,” she summarizes.

Ultimately, after all the research and familiarizing oneself with what’s available, it will again come down to what artwork you’re attracted to.

“There’s no right or wrong in buying art. It’s very subjective and it all depends on what like,” Carol concludes.