Friday, 29 September 2017


                Cyrus Kabiru at his new art studio in Machakos County modeling a pair of his C-Stunners (photo by MG)


BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted September 29, 2017)

When Mark Coetzee came to Kenya to confer with art aficionados about which artists they’d recommend to include in the opening exhibition of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA), he were amazed to find the lists he received didn’t include Cyrus Kabiru.

The Zeitz MOCAA curator and executive director had just seen Cyrus’ one man exhibition “The End of the Black Mamba’ at the SMAC Gallery in Cape Town and already knew his C-Stunner specks were going to part of the grand opening [on September 15th] of the world’s largest museum of  contemporary African and Diasporan art.
But if Coetzee was surprised, Cyrus was not. “Art is war and I’ve been in this battle for quite some time,” said one of only two Kenyan artists (Wangeci Mutu is the other) whose artworks were not only selected to be in the grand opening of what had once been a nine-story grain silo but now, after a grandiose overhaul, is the leading cultural attraction of the V&A Waterfront, one of the most popular entertainment centres in Cape Town.
                                       Cyrus with Jochen Zeitz (left) of the Zeitz MOCAA and an art collector
Cyrus’s now world-renowned C-stunners sculptures were also bought to become part of the German entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz’s permanent art collection. “Twenty - four C-stunners are now in the museum’s permanent collection,” Cyrus told the Business Daily the same night he came back from Cape Town. “They also got twenty - four photographs of the C-Stunners.”
At the opening, only the photographs had been hung in one second floor gallery. “They said they hadn’t had time to put up the glasses before the opening but they’ll do it,” he added.

But since his photographs occupy the whole room, Cyrus isn’t disappointed. Zeitz MOCAA also didn’t buy his quirky bicycle sculpture. But that didn’t bother him either since the bikes, made with the same meticulous craftsmanship, creativity and originality of design as his specks, were on display at SMAC. That’s the gallery that Cyrus has been affiliated with since 2014 when he first went to Cape Town to be part of a Guinness ad campaign called ‘Made of Black’ and SMAC’s curator... saw his C-Stunner specks.

SMAC’s current exhibition, entitled ‘Pandashuka’, has already been critiqued by some of the world’s leading art critics. Writers like Mark Spiegler who’s been ranked among the top 25 most influential individuals in the global art world have praised Cyrus’ new show to the hilt.

But just as his specks are not really spectacles, his bicycles are not really bikes. Both begin with those basic concepts but then they’re reconfigured into highly original sculptures made out of either junk that Cyrus collects or ordinary utility items like spoons and forks, auto or bicycle spare parts, lids from kitchen bottles and cans, and metallic wires, some store-bought, others procured by sundry means.  

He can incorporate almost anything into his ingenious works which are all one-of-a-kind. But his art hasn’t always been highly valued or even understood, especially by family members who conventionally believed he was wasting his life doing art. (Which is one reason why he describes art as ‘war’ which has many battle fronts.) But his family has largely changed their tune now that they’ve seen how he’s managed to earn a good living, start a family and invest his earnings well.

Getting his art bought by Zeitz MOCAA might seem like a rare pinnacle of success for this 32 year old artist. But actually, Cyrus’s art has been exhibited and sold to leading public institutions and private collections all over the world. Even so, he admits it’s been a long journey to arrive at where he is today. The need to stay focused and concentrate on his art is one reason why he moved out of his studio at Kuona Trust two years back and into his own solo studio in Machokos County. “I’d like to expand the studio into a residence where artists can come from all over and work for some time,” he says.
                       Some of the junk Cyrus collects to use in his art works. It's in his new studio in Machakos county

‘My friends call my place the ‘Away Studio’ since it seems far away to them, but I prefer to be on my own and keep a low profile as well,” he adds.

Cyrus isn’t the only local artists who’s moved out of institutional settings like Kuona Trust and GoDown Art Centre in recent times. “I’m feeling the local art scene is changing rapidly. Some of it is sad since the institutions seem to be losing ground. But I think it’s good that artists are branching out and becoming more independent. It’s better for them in the long run.”

Thursday, 28 September 2017



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted September 28, 2017)

Nigeria’s National Day of Independence is this coming Sunday, October 1st. According to Paulina Otieno, it will be a day of fabulous celebrations, “much like what we have back home,” says the Nigeria-born fashion designer and entrepreneur.

Paulina promises that from noon on Sundayat the Nairobi Gallery, the celebrations will feature everything from Nigerian food and fashion to live Nigerian music and dancing by several professional West African bands and dancers.

Coincidentally, Sunday is also the day the 2nd Nigerian Arts Festival opens at Nairobi Gallery where the Grand Opening will officially begin from 2pm. The Kenyan Cabinet Secretary of Culture, Arts and Sports Dr. Hassan Wario has promised to be on hand as will the new Nigerian High Commission.

Pauline has had a hand in organizing the Grand Opening of the Festival. But she has worked closely with the curator of the Gallery, Alan Donovan who staged the 1st Nigerian Cultural Festival exactly 50 years ago, in 1967 at the now defunct Studio Arts 68.

Back then, Mr Donovan, who is also the CEO and founder of African Heritage House, had recently come from Nigeria where he had worked for USAID during the dark days of the Biafran war.

It was in Nigeria that Donovan discovered the beauty of West African art up close. He had actually studied it as a graduate student at UCLA in the States several years earlier. But his first purchases of African art were in Lagos and Oshogbo, the famous art city, where he met many active artists and gave his heart to collecting and showcasing African textiles, arts, fashions, jewelry and crafts.

“This 2nd Nigerian Cultural Festival is meant to commemorate 50 years since I dedicated myself to African art,” says the co-founder, with Kenya’s former Vice President Joseph Murumbi, of the African Heritage Pan-African Gallery. The two men launched that gallery in the early 1970s; it became world renowned up until its demise in the early 21st century.

One of the special features of African Heritage over the years was the Gala Night which will be revived this coming October 18th. The same day, Nike is scheduled to speak on Nigerian batik art. And in the evening, the Kenyan musician Papillon will launch his new album ‘Heart of Africa’ with his mentor Ayub Ogada.

But from the 1st, three of Nairobi’s leading CBD cultural venues will join hands to celebrate Nigerian culture. Together with Nairobi Gallery, the Festival will be happening at the Nairobi National Museum and Alliance Francaise.

At all three venues, the visual artworks of more than 20 Nigerian artists will be on display, including those of two of the country’s internationally acclaimed artists: Bruce Onobrakpiya and Nike Seven Seven Okunfaye who is best known as a batik artist but is so much more than that.

Most of the rest of the artists who will be represented over the month are closely connected with Nike who has both the biggest art and cultural centre in Lagos. She also owns the largest craft and community centre at Oshogbo, a village originally started by Germans, Ulli Beier and Suzanne Wenger. Subsequently, countless artists of all kinds have come and created at Oshogbo. It’s been a thriving community for poets, painters, playwrights and traditional textile designers like Nike who won’t be coming to Kenya until later on this month. But her colorful batik art will be here along with the art works of other well-known Nigerian artists.

On October 9th, Alliance Francaise will launch an exhibition of ‘The Vanishing Textiles of Africa.’ They’ll be textiles that Mr Donovan collected during his half century of travels around the region and are now permanently resident at the African Heritage House.

Historically, the African Heritage Gala Nights have been extravaganzas that are most memorable. This 50th anniversary of the Gala Nights is bound to be special as well as it will feature both Kenyan and Nigerian bands and dancers plus original African fashions, all of which are made with textiles, many of which are now rare or have vanished altogether. So the Festival is bound to be an excellent way to take one’s mind off national issues and enjoy the ways that West Africans celebrate and create.



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (written September 28, 2017)

Nyana K took a big risk last year when she took a leap of faith and went from being a blogger about books to becoming an actual book publisher in her own right.

But it wasn’t the first time Nyana had taken risks with her career. She’d been preparing as an undergrad in Literature and Communications at Makerere University for a full time job as a journalist. In her first year alone, she’d started out writing feature stories on a free-lance basis for The New Vision newspaper. She was so successful, in fact, that once she graduated she was given a full-time position at the paper.

But already she had her sights set on greener harvest fields/pastures. And so, when she had the chance, she moved over to The Daily Monitor where she quickly proved her editorial skills/prowess. In no time she’d won a three month fellowship to do an internship in sub-editing at the home base of The Nation Media Group in Nairobi.

Returning to Kampala and the Monitor after that, Nyana soon realized she wasn’t really cut out to be a sub-editor.

“I confess I found the newsroom grueling,” she told Business Daily. “Besides, I wanted more time to do my writing.”

So to stay afloat financially, she quit the Monitor and got a job with the Madvani Group, doing public relations work for them while still writing and exploring other options, one of which was to start a literary blog in 2014.

Initially, she did her blogging as a sideline since her PR work was a full-time affair. But gradually she found working and writing for her blog far more exciting/fulfilling than PR.

“I called it ‘Sooo Many Stories’ (with three o’s in the ‘so’),” she said.

“It involved my attending book launches and literary talks, interviewing writers and publishers,” she added.

Considering herself both a writer for and editor of her blog, it was in the latter capacity that she came to Kenya to attend a workshop run by Kwani? specifically for editors.

“It was toward the end of that workshop that as a group of [ambitious] writer-editors, we decided to start our own online literary journal. That was how Jalada was born. I was one of the first members of the board,” she added.

That was when Nyana was also introduced to the African Writers Trust, a group that, among other things, sponsored fellowships for young African editors.

“I won one of those fellowships and went to Cape Town where I interned at Modjoyi Books, a small feminist publisher run by Colleen Higgs,” she said.

“Colleen operated her publishing business out of her home. That showed me that someone didn’t need necessarily to start off big. Colleen started small and already had 80 authors whose works she published,” said Nyana who admits Colleen’s example gave her courage to go home and start up her own book business.

Currently, she’s just publishing two Ugandan authors, the political poet and lawyer Peter Kagayi and Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa, a poet and novelist. They both came with her last week to Kenya to attend the Storymoja Literary and Arts Festival, run a workshop and promote their books.

“It was Colleen who got me started,” said Nyana gratefully. “She gave me rights to sell Philippa’s book, ‘Flame and Song’ within East Africa while she covers the rest of Africa.”

Peter who is both a poet and performing artist had been bugging her for some time to help him publish his poetry and promote his book entitled ‘The Headline that Morning, and other poems’.

“Peter is also a spoken word artist who likes to perform his poetry, so I helped him produce the DVD for ‘The Headline that Morning,” Nyana added.

So now she’s in the risky business of publishing, but Nyana isn’t in doubt about having done the right thing. “Right now, I’m only publishing Ugandan writers,” she said.

But what she knows is that her countrymen and women have ‘so many stories’ to tell, she’s made it her job to get those stories out in the public domain both in Uganda and in the wider world.

Last Saturday at the Storymoja Fete, Peter and Philippa performed a literary dialogue based on an exchange of their poetry and her prose.

“Their performance felt like a revelation for Kenyans, so we’ll be back next year, bringing more books and Ugandan writers to what we found to be an appreciative Kenyan book-loving audience,” Nyana added.


                                            Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o with Jalada online literary magazine founder Moses Kilolo in 2016. Photos by margaretta

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted September 28, 2017)

The day after I arrived in Kenya, I had my first encounter with Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I had recently won a Rotary International ‘Ambassadorial Fellowship’ to study at the University of Nairobi for a year. So I’d gone to new students’ orientation at the Education Building Theatre 2 to hear the Chairman of the Literature Department speak to us newcomers. I stood way up in the back of the large room and listened to one of the most inspiring lectures I’d ever heard.

The room was packed but I felt Ngugi was speaking to me directly. He spoke passionately about the need for all of us to see ourselves as writers who would tell Kenyans’ stories. He spoke as if he knew what he was saying and knew all of our potential to do the work required to create a body of literature that could equal or exceed that of canonical European writings.

Just years before, Ngugi had spearheaded a cultural revolution at the University when he with others insisted on the transformation of the English department into a Literature department that was not Euro-centric as the English department had previously been but Afro-centric. And more precisely, the core course would be Oral Literature which would include every student going out and interviewing elders who had oral traditions and stories of early Kenya to share. From there the curriculum would expand in concentric circles: it would go from oral to Kenyan lit, then to the study of South, West and North African and finally to literature of the Black Diaspora and the rest of the world.

Ngugi’s words that day lit a flame in my soul that has never died. His conviction about students’ creative capacity made me hungry to listen to more of what he had to say and share. But when I went to his office and asked that I be admitted to his department, he refused me. I discovered that Ngugi could be hard core. In part his refusal might have been because I wasn’t a Kenyan or even an African. Plus I was a visiting student who might not be serious about literary studies. But those were not his grounds. As revolutionary as his approach to education seemed to be, he was still fixated on the British model which dictated that you couldn’t enter a Master’s program (which is what I’d wanted to do as I already had a Bachelor’s in Sociology and Comparative Religion plus a Master’s in Education) unless you had done A levels in Literature and pursued the same course for the first university degree. So his grounds for dismissing me were academic. I did not qualify as far as he was concerned.

I didn’t see Ngugi for several months after that since UON students went on strike for five months. They were up in arms over some lecturer that they claimed was a racist and had to be removed from the University. So while I had that time, I read a lot of African and Pan-African literature, met writers like Okot p’Bitek, and I got up my nerve to ask assistance from Ngugi’s good friend and fellow scholar, Dr Micere Mugo who actually took pity on me.

It was thanks to Dr Micere that Ngugi relented and allowed me into the undergraduate program. That program was a three year course, but as I was committed to getting an MA from UON, I took all the subjects and all the exams in one year. That was undoubted the most intensely academic year of my life. If I wasn’t reading, I was attending classes. And I made a point of attending every lecture, seminar and tutorial that Ngugi gave. I was forever seated either at his elbow or in the front row of lectures and more casual conversations that he had with his students. I tried to be inconspicuous but at that time, (the mid-Seventies) it wasn’t very easy since I was one of the few white students in the department.

  Ngugi with his wife Njeri and grandchild at PAWA 254 theatre

What I found in Ngugi was a man in love with literature, all literature. Whatever author he was teaching, be in Eldridge Cleaver or Ayi Kweh Armah, he was always encouraging us to read everything that he or she had written. He was so down to earth that he’d come to class dressed casually, like any other peasant or worker from his home area of Kamiriithu.

The other thing about Ngugi was his subtle sense of humor and irony that invariably shown through his lectures and more casual classes. He never came across as academically arrogant or proud. Instead, he struck me as one of the most humble, gentle man that I’d ever met. However, I never forgot how curt he’d initially been with me, so I chose to keep my distance even though I wouldn’t miss a single one of his lectures or sessions that he’d have in his office among other students.

Ngugi’s political perspective was never far from his analysis of literature. And as my background had been in sociology and the study of revolutionary social movements, I loved hearing his appraisal of how inherently political was culture and specifically literature. Class consciousness was always understood by Ngugi to be a component of every writer’s point of view, however latent or subtle it might have seemed. But especially when we got into African American literature with Ngugi, his literary analysis included both class and race. In other words, he was talking about a post-colonial perspective years before it was labeled to that effect.

While we were in classes, the play ‘Kimathi’ by Kenneth Watene was staged and Ngugi was clearly not impressed. He felt Watene had swallowed the British perspective on the great leader of the Mau Mau or Land and Freedom Army. That is how ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ was born. Co-created by Ngugi and Micere, The Trial was first staged in 1976, and by then, I had been admitted to the Master’s program at UON. Even so, I was still stunned when Ngugi asked me at the last minute to join the cast and play an ‘ugly mzungu’ (white colonial woman or memsaab) who sat scornfully through the trial of Kimathi. Needless to say I was delighted to do it.

The Trial had already been selected to go to FESTAC (the 2nd Pan African Arts Festival) in Lagos, but I never intended to go as I knew there would be few tickets available and they were for Kenyans. But I, like Ngugi, had caught the theatre bug and took Drama classes with John Ruganda who invited me to join the University’s Free Traveling Theatre (a whole other story) which I did. I also got to see how much Ngugi admired Okot p’Bitek who wrote poetry grounded in his own indigenous cultural traditions. ‘Song of Lawino’, I believe was initially written by Okot in his mother tongue. It was also dramatized. It wasn’t terribly long after that Ngugi cowrote The Trial of Kimathi that he began working with Ngugi wa Mirii to co-author his first Gikuyu play, Ngaihika ndeeda (I’ll marry when I want to).
                                Ngugi at his book signing at PAWA 254 Theatre in 2016

But before that happened, I was taking graduate classes with Ngugi who happens to love Russian literature. So we got to read and talk about everyone from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev to Gogol, Chekhov and others. I had the privilege of presenting the first paper in the class meant to contextualize Russian literature which Ngugi understood as emerging out of conditions of 19th century Russia where peasants (serfs) and workers were profoundly oppressed and the potential for revolution was ripening. Reading and discussing this literature in seminars with Ngugi was life-transforming, and I have to say, he embodied the best qualities of a true intellectual for me.

It was later on in my life when I read Gramsci and realized that Ngugi had prepared me to fully appreciate what an organic intellectual is. It was after I’d completed my course work and had to get a job in journalism to pay for completing my master’s thesis, that Ngugi was detained. He’d recently published Petals of Blood in English, which I know was a big deal to him at the time, since he’d occasionally bemoaned the fact that almost ten years had gone by since he’s written his last novel, A Grain of Wheat. But after Petals was published, he’d rapidly gone on to formulate his perspective on writing in one’s mother tongue. And undoubtedly, he was detained for writing and producing his overwhelmingly popular production of his first Gikuyu play, Ngaihika Ndeeda. For not only was the play attracting thousands to come to Kamiirithu, to see the show Ngugi and Ngugi had directed starring a cast full of peasants and workers who’d been empowered by everything they’d learned from Ngugi about themselves, social injustice and the theatre. The play was subversive and the writer became the nemesis during those last days of Kenyatta and the early days of the civilian dictator (soon to be President) Daniel arap Moi.

I had interviewed Ngugi shortly after Petals of Blood came out, but my editor Hillary Ng’weno refused to published the interview. I gather he’d wanted to stay on the right side of the government and Ngugi had already been identified as a radical. But once Ngugi was detained, Hillary apparently had a change of heart. He immediately published my interview with Ngugi. What’s more, when a year had passed and Ngugi was miraculously released, it was Hillary who sent me to Kamiirithu to conduct another interview with the newly freed writer. But my boss had given an explicit set of questions to ask Ngugi, questions like ‘Do you believe in peasant revolution?’ Mind you, Kenya had banned Mao tse Tung several years before, so anything that smell of ‘peasant revolution’ was anathema to the government.

So what I did was give Ngugi my set of questions and ask him to fashion the questions that would elicit the answers he’d like to share with a world awaiting word from Kenya’s number one writer and recent detainee. I had the privilege of being the first journalist to interview Ngugi before the international press corps arrived on the scene. But when my former lecturer alluded to me (namelessly) in the preface to his book Detained, he clearly didn’t understand that I had risked my job to give him that open-ended platform. Hillary literally was ready to sack me as soon as he read the transcribed interview because it was obvious I had disobeyed his instructions and reconstructed Ngugi’s interview. I had never seen Hillary so livid, but it was worth it. Especially when that interview was published just as Ngugi had spoken to me.

I didn’t see Ngugi for quite some time after that. I was delighted when he left the country and didn’t come back in 1982 since the darkened days of Moi had already set in and my professor wouldn’t have survived if he’d returned to Kenya during the reign of Moi.  

1979 Art Review in The Nairobi Times of African American artist Gerald Williams

Gerald Williams just emailed me an art review that I wrote for The Nairobi Times in October, 1979. I was stunned but delighted to share this story. Thanks to Gerald for sharing  it with me. I have few of the stories that I wrote in the Seventies. Yes, I have been writing about the visual arts ever since.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017



BY MARGARETTA WA GACHERU (posted 27 september 2017))

Philip Coulson is best known in Nairobi for being a prominent lawyer. But last Saturday night at Braeburn Theatre, he joined a long line of international ‘A-listed actors’ to do a ‘cold read’ of Nassim Soleimanpour’s audacious script, ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’.

The Iranian playwright’s highly innovative and interactive one-man show has been translated into no less than 20 languages (but never his mother tongue, Farsi) and staged in major cities all over the world. Yet the show has no director and no rehearsal time.

Nor does an actor have a chance to see the text until just before he reads it in front of a live audience. That’s according to the playwright’s ‘rules’.

So when the show’s producer, Davina Leonard came on stage with Mr Coulson and handed him the sealed envelope with the script inside, the actor and the audience were united. We were both being introduced to Soleimanpour’s unusual play at the same time.

Yet it was exhilarating to see how well Coulson handled his theatrical task. Juggling his ‘cold reading’, which involved him not only playing the Actor and occasionally, the playwright’s voice, but also calling audience members on stage and giving them absurd assignments to enact (like being a white rabbit running from a bear!), Coulson kept his cool. He quickly got into the author’s witty, wily spirit and did a brilliant job drawing his audience into this ingenious story line.

Gradually we could see that this quirky play had multiple layers of meaning, hidden in allegorical creatures who like Orwell’s Animal Farm, symbolized issues grappled with by the author. They had to do with tyranny and want of free speech, identity and alienation, and his own inability to leave his country due to red tape and the State rule that obtaining a passport required two years mandatory military service which the writer refused to do.

And so he chose to write about ‘Rabbits’ as his way of getting word out that tyranny can be cruel. He even toys with the notion of suicide as a means of coping.

But rather than ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ painting a dark, dreary picture, Soleimanpour’s play entertains with the spontaneity of Mr Coulson and his delegated cast’s making fun of themselves.

The only truly stunning moment in the script comes towards the end when the writer suggests the Actor has to actually gamble with life and death. Two water glasses and a vial of poison on a table (with a chair and ladder) have been the only props on an otherwise bare stage. And as one audience member had early on been ordered to empty the poison into one of the two glasses, the text told Coulson to drink from either one.

A key indicator of how enthralled his audience was with the show on Saturday night was when one woman jumped up just before Coulson chose a glass. She impulsively grabbed both glasses and threw the water on the stage floor.

Her move was unscripted but it showed how captivating was Coulson’s performance combined with Soleimanpour’s mind game. In the end, the actor followed the script, picked one glass and finally fell down flat on the floor.

Was he ‘dead’ or was it for the audience to decide? Ultimately, we can see why ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit has attracted so many great actors globally (and local ones too, including John Sibi Okumu, Mumbi Kaigwa, Aleya Kassam, Maimouna Jallow and Nick Reding, all of whom played the Actor last July).

Thanks to Davina who brought the script to Kenya (courtesy of Aurora Nova) after seeing it staged in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival three years ago.

Meanwhile, Davina will give her own one-woman show this Sunday at 5pm at the National Museum. She’ll re-stage ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ which like Soleimanpour’s has a wonderfully interactive component.

Right after her Sunday show, Mike Kudakwashe who’s been described as the ‘funniest man in Harare’ will do his stand-up comedy set also at National Museum

Tomorrow night Davina costars with Kevin Hanssen, Omwoma Mbogo and Mike Kudakwashe in a slightly shortened version of Silvia Cassini’s ‘A Man Like You’ at Louis Leakey Auditorium.

Finally, this Sunday afternoon in Nanyuki, Martin Kigondu’s Prevail Arts Company will perform Martin’s new play, ‘What Happens in the Night’ at Le Rustique Restaurant from 3pm. The following weekend Prevail will perform the same drama Saturday, October 7th at 5pm at Daystar University Valley Road.

Martin’s cast includes Chichi Sei, Nick Ndeda, Shiviske Shivisi, Mourad Sadat and Salim Gitao.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017


                 Kevin Hanssen as 'Dickens' was staged at Louis Leakey auditorium on first night of Storymoja Fete

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted for Nation online Sept.26, 2017)

Storymoja Festival celebrates its tenth anniversary this year with the theme ‘Black Peace’. But when it opens today, Wednesday, September 27th, there will be lots of light, illuminating literary, artistic and theatrical activities every day through Sunday night.

Theatre performances will hit a special high this year, starting tonight when the Zimbabwean actor, Kevin Hanssen stages his one-man show of ‘Dickens’ at the Louis Leakey Auditorium, part of the Nairobi National Museum where the rest of the festival will be taking place.

                            Kevin Hanssen performing excerpts from A Tale of Two Cities in 'Dickens' Sept.27, 2017

Based on the writings of Charles Dickens, Kevin will perform excerpts of two of the British writer’s best known novels, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’. He’ll also relate Dickens’ complete short story, ‘The Signalman’ which the actor says is something of a ghost story.

Walking in the writer’s own footsteps, Kevin recalls that Dickens himself used to give public performances of his writings, both in the UK and in the States where he became a 19th century equivalent of a ‘rock star’.
Kevin Hanssen also came to Kenya to restage Silvia Cassini’s powerful play, ‘A Man like You’ which he will perform on Saturday night from 6pm with the same cast that he was with this past May in Nairobi, and then in Harare and Cape Town.

                 Kevin rehearsing with Mike Kudakwashe for A Man Like You at playwright-director Silvia Cassini's home

Also in the ‘Man Like You’ cast are Davina Leonard (who performs her own one woman show, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ on Sunday at 5pm, also on the Louis Leakey stage), Omwoma Mbogo and another Zimbabwean actor Mike Kudakwashe who replaced Maina Olwenya who wasn’t available in May.

Mike plays a Somali so-called terrorist (who could also be construed as a man with a personal grudge) which is a very different role from the one he’ll play on Sunday night at Leakey Auditorium. He’ll put on his comedic cap and do a stand-up comedy session. It’s a gig that’s made him a pop star back home in Harare.
        Mike Kudakwashe stars Sunday in stand-up comedy. Saturday he costars with Kevin, Davina & Omwoma in A man 

‘A Man Like You’ will be staged on Saturday night from 6pm followed by Sitawa Namwalie’s ‘Room of Lost Names’ at 8pm.

An excerpt from Silvia’s ‘A Man’ will also be staged during the Gala Night on Friday.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted September 26, 2017)

Mike Kudakwashe came all the way from Harare to take part in Storymoja Festival 2017 which opens today (Wednesday, September 27) and runs through Sunday, October 1st at the Nairobi National Museum.

The Zimbabwe actor will costar this coming Saturday night in ‘A Man Like You’ with his countryman Kevin Hanssen and with Kenyan actors Davina Leonard and Omwoma Mboga. The foursome will perform Silvia Cassini’s gripping political drama on Saturday night in the Louis Leakey Auditorium as part of the Festival. That same night, Sitawa Namwalie’s ‘Room of Lost Names’ will be staged at the same venue right after Silvia’s play.

But Mike, who plays a hot-tempered Somali kidnapper, doesn’t only do dramatic roles. In fact, back home in Zimbabwe his stand-up comedy is what he’s best known for.

Billed as ‘the funniest man in Harare’, he’ll be sharing his stand-up comedy on Sunday evening at 7pm also on the Leakey stage.

But Mike is not the only cast member of ‘A Man Like You’ who will stage their own one-person show during the Festival. Kevin is performing tonight (Wednesday) in ‘Dickens’, a script that’s almost entirely based on the writings of the great British writer Charles Dickens himself.

Hanssen will perform excerpts from two of Dickens’ most well-known novels, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’. He will also dramatize Dickens’ complete short story, ‘The Signalman’.

Finally, Davina Leonard who just produced Nassim Soleimanpour’s ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ last weekend will star in her solo show, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ on Sunday at 5pm also at the Leakey Auditorium

The foursome performed ‘A Man Like You’ last April in Nairobi during the first leg of their African tour. The show then went to Harare and Cape Town where they got an invitation to perform a slightly shortened version of the original script in November as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.   

‘The Hong Kong Festival compelled us to revise our script slightly, which is what Nairobi audiences will see on Saturday night,” says Silvia.

Monday, 25 September 2017


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted September 15, 2017)

The ABSA L’Atelier Awards have been running for the past 32 years. But up until three years ago, the competition only involved South African artists.

The first L’Atelier arts competition to be open to other African artists came in 2015. Since then, the contest has attracted original artworks by creatives from ten African countries: Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania as well as Botswana, Zambia, Ghana, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa and the Seychelles.

Kenyan artists featured in the top 100 since 2015. Among them were Jackie Karuti, Kevo Stero, Onyis Martin and Maral Bolouri. But this year the top prize went straight to the Kuona Trust-based artist Maral. Her ‘Mothers and Others’ installation was awarded for its ingenious investigation of African proverbs and their representations of women.

Her installation reveals that the overwhelming majority of proverbs represent women negatively. All across the region, women in proverbs are portrayed as lesser beings who are helpless and weak-minded.

                                                               Maral and Margaretta at Kuona Trust in  2015
But after months of research, Maral also found a few positive adages, although they mainly reflected well on mothers and women’s reproductive potential.

In three structures, her interactive installation juxtaposes the positive and the negative. In the first one, handmade iron cowbells dangle from a tall wooden frame. Each bell is attached to a proverb that represents women unfavorably. But beneath the bells is a triangular altar containing the few positive proverbs.

The second structure contains unlit candles suggesting that there’s hope for women in future, and the third one is blank but labeled with a public notice inviting people to write their own proverbs which represent women.

Maral has won a six month residency to the ‘Cite Internationale des Arts’ in Paris and a substantial cash award. It also entitles her along with the other top ten awardees a two day course on professionalism and how to effectively manage their fine art career.

At the ABSA (Amalgamated Bank of South Africa) L’Atelier Gallery in Johannesburg, Maral’s installation together with the artworks for the other top 100 selected artists have been on display since September 14th. The exhibition of L’Atelier 2017 entitled ‘Give Art Life’ will run through October 27th.

 The other Kenyan artist who placed in the top ten of L’Atelier 2017 is Elias Mungora Njora. His painting ‘Foot Prints 4’ ranked number nine.

Both artists have studios in Nairobi, Maral at Kuona Trust and Mungora at Brush tu Art Studio.
Q&A for Maral Bolouri (submitted 25 September 2017)
1.     MG: Hi Maral, Congratulations on winning the L’Atelier 2017 first prize. How many countries were involved in the competition this year? Do you know how many artists submitted art work both regionally and nationally?
2.     Q: Your winning installation was entitled Mothers and Others. It’s a fascinating title but could you describe how and why you constructed it as you did? What materials you used and how did you decide on the construction?
3.     Q: I know you have been researching African proverbs and how those adages portray women for some time. Could you please tell us when and why you began doing this research? How many countries’ proverbs did you examine?
4.     Q: How did you conceive the structure of your installation? Did you have the design in mind early on, or did it evolve out of your research?
5.     Q: Your installation indicates that the vast majority of Proverbs about women were negative. Could you share a few? I believe the media reported that the over-arching image of women reflected in these proverbs was of woman as imbecilic and weak? Is that an accurate generalization?
6.     Q: I imagine your research findings must have been distressing for you. Am I correct? Do you see a way of changing those negative attitudes towards women?
7.     Q: the few positive proverbs that you found, I gather you placed inside what was called an ‘altar’ or shrine: what’s the precise name. And why did you put them there?
8.     Was it paper that you wrote the proverbs on? If not paper, then what medium did you use to write the proverbs on? Is the installation as fragile as it looks?
9.     Q: I gather this is not your first exhibition to address the issue of women and stereotypes. What was the name of that previous one? Did your Mothers & Others installation develop out of that previous exhibition which I believe you had at Kuona Trust some time ago (was it 2 years ago?)
10.                        Q: what sort of impact has your research and the art that has emerged from it, had on you personally? Do you find it disillusioning or does it energize you to want to affect change in attitudes towards women through your art or by any other means?
11.                        Please tell us a bit of your background: e.g. where were you born? When? When did you know you wanted to be an artist? Could you describe your formal and informal training?
12.                        Where have you exhibited and when?
13.                        Finally, (and probably what should have been the first question): What does winning first prize at this year’s L’Atelier mean to you? In concrete terms, you will be going to Paris sometime soon, I gather. When will that be and where? Which art institution? I believe you will be given a cash prize as well. Do you have a plan for how you might spend it? But psychologically, how do you feel about being the first in Kenya to win such a prestigious award?
14.                        Q; How do you anticipate this major win affecting your life in the future?
Again, congratulations Maral. Thank you for agreeing to answer my questions. I am thrilled for you and trust your win will have a positive impact on your life.




Book Review of ‘Vanishing Songs of the Warriors’

By Bobby Pall

Footprint Press, 2017

Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru

Bobby Pall may be best known for the photography that he’s done for development and aid agencies like the Red Cross, UNHCR and the Global Fund. He’s also the favored photographer of Footprints Press, producing sharply focused portrait images of all sorts of Kenyans, including  everyone from elders to outstanding ‘women over 50’ and most recently, over 50 of the country’s most acclaimed visual artists selected by FP’s founder-publisher Susan Wahkungu-Githuku to include in the new book ‘Visual Voices’.

But at long last, Bobby has come out with a book of his own. Still published by Footprints Press as a high-quality coffee table-sized work, his ‘Vanishing Songs of the Warriors’ is first and foremost, a visual ode to the people living in one large section of East Africa whose cultures and ‘songs’ are rapidly disappearing, eroded by poverty and other forces of underdevelopment.

But the book is also autobiographical in that it reflects all the years that Bobby has worked in that region. Having gone to South Sudan, Somalia and northern Kenya many times for those international agencies, Bobby made many friends in those ‘remote’ and oft forgotten places. So after those assignments were done, he decided to return and record more personal features of the people’s lives.

“I often went back and stayed with families that I’d gotten close to during my previous tours,” says Bobby whose book is filled with portrait photos as well as with people struggling to eke out an existence on terrain that’s semi-arid and barren.

Interspersed with his images are African proverbs and adages coined by the photographer himself. He also includes poetry that reflects on the same theme of vanishing cultures. One is by his publisher, Susan Wakhungu-Githuku. Another is by his wife, Xonchitl Ramirez. And towards the end of the book he includes a short catalogue of cultural and ethnic categories of people, many of whom are included in the book.

As another endnote, he shares a brief biography and philosophical explanation for why he calls the characters in his book ‘warriors.’ One critic has challenged his use of the term, noting his subjects don’t carry spears, guns or even bows and arrows.

Bobby answers his critics when he explains that for him, a ‘warrior’ is a term that transcends gender. It can refer to anyone, man or woman, who stands strong in the face of adversity and lives with courage, integrity, dignity and commitment to protecting the lives of others. That could include mothers, shepherds, fishermen and everyone else contributing to keeping their community and family alive.

Bobby may be using language loosely, but his point is clear. What’s more, the value of ‘Vanishing Songs of the Warriors’ is recognized and explained well in the book’s foreword by the Hon. Ambassador Amina Mohamed.

In appreciation of his book, she writes: “In my 30 years as a Kenyan and international diplomat, I regretted the scarcity of books on Africa by Africans,” For her, his book serves to counter “the barrage of negative media stories” that do such a disservice to the continent.

So while Bobby’s black and white images do not paint exotic portraits of Africans ‘adorned’ with the regalia that often gets worn especially to impress tourists, his photos reflect an authenticity that reveals people’s everyday lives and their struggles to survive in a parched and barren land. But his book is by no means depressing; instead, his images reflect people’s resilience, dignity and reliance on family to carry on singing the ‘songs’ they still retain deep inside the core of their cultures and traditiions.



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted September 25, 2017)

The Nairobi art scene is literally exploding as the number of exhibitions underway, just ended or about to open is unprecedented.

All the way from Kilileshwa, Kilimani and Karen over to Lavington, Banana Hill and Roslyn and then back to Westlands, and the CBD, the visual arts are flourishing.

In part it’s due to several new art spaces opening around the city including The Attic in Nyari (showing works by Longinos Nagila and David Thuku), The Metta in Westlands (with works by Drishti Vohra) and McKinsey’s in PWC House where artworks by sculptors like Gakunju Kaigwa, Meshak Oiro and Kepha Mosoti as well as painters like Mary Ogembo, Njogu Kuria and among others are on display.

It’s also because hotels have increased their interest in exhibiting good Kenyan art. For instance, Sankara Hotel just opened a new ‘First Generation’ exhibition featuring paintings by Sane Wadu and Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos. And tomorrow, Dusit D2 Hotel will open its monthly Pop-Up Gallery including works by artists like Mercy Kagia, Kipruto Rop, Njogu Kuria, Nadia Wamunyu and Deqa Abshir among others.

Then there are the art galleries and foreign cultural centres that have also stepped up their game. For instance, One Off Gallery is revisiting the theme of Nudes due to the positive response generated by the first Nude show last August. So rather than turn down the heat, Carol Lees’s invited artists like Peterson Kamwathi, Yony Waite, Tabitha wa Thuku and Leena Shah to join artists who’d shown during the first Nudes show (Olivia Pendergast, Talal Cocker and Anthony Russell). Come tomorrow afternoon and expect the unexpected!

Several Kenyan men have complained about nudity invading the Kenyan art scene. But the former anatomical art instructor, Dr Mercy Kagia says that without nude models (be they men or women) art students especially would have difficulty learning to accurately paint and draw the human body.

Meanwhile, Circle Art just opened with paintings by the leading Wajukuu artist Shabu Mwangi. Banana Hill Gallery is in its last days showing portraits by Nduta Kariuki and Njogu Kuria. Thereafter, paintings by Uganda artist Herbert Kalule go up tomorrow. And the Little Art Gallery just curated a three-man show at Village Market featuring fabulous figurative artists, Peter Elungat, Patrick Kariuki and Clavers Odhiambo. Described by show’s curator William Ndwiga as ‘a dreamer, an observer and a [hyper] realist respectively, some critics argue that realistic art is passe and out of fashion. But these artists don’t care. Neither do art collectors who’ve amassed countless artworks by all three painters.

Then from October 1st, an exhibition of art by award-winning artist, Elias Mongora opens at Polka Dot Gallery. Just named among the top ten winners of the APSA-Barclays L’Atelier Art Competition, Elias’s rise in public recognition has been meteoric.

The number one winner of L’Atelier 2017 is Kenya’s Maral Bolouri for her installation, ‘Mothers and Others’. She’ll be exhibiting in a group show curated by Zihan Herr from October 25 at Goethe Institute.

Three other art centres working together to host the Nigerian Art Festival opening October 1st (coincidentally Nigeria’s National Day) are the Nairobi Gallery, National Museum and Alliance Francaise. In all, over 20 Nigerian artists’ works will be displayed, including original works by Nigeria’s most venerable visual art elder, Bruce Onobrakpeya. All the art was shipped to African Heritage House director Alan Donovan by the largest art centre in West Africa, run by the international acclaimed Nigerian batik artist, Nike Okundaye (formerly Nike Seven Seven Davies) who’ll be in Kenya by late October.

This will be Mr Donovan’s 2nd Nigerian cultural festival in Nairobi. The first was in the late Sixties after the former USAID worker had left Nigeria, having been based in Biafra during the country’s civil war.

The other local art centres exhibiting Kenyan and African art currently are BIEA showing artworks by Leevans Linyerere, Kuona Trust featuring paintings by Samuel Githui, Nairobi Museum displaying prints and paintings by John Silver Kimani and Kobo Gallery showing artworks by three Pan-African artists who’ve been in residence at the Brush tu Art Studio the last three months. They are Stacey Okparavera of Nigeria, Timothy Wandulu of Rwanda and Lionel Yamadjako of Benin.

Finally, a story about the exploding appreciation of Kenyan and African art wouldn’t be complete without mentioning last Friday’s opening of the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) in Cape Town. Billed as the biggest African Art museum in the world, Zeitz is showing two of Kenya’s most internationally-known artists, Wangeci Mutu and Cyrus Kabiru.

Sunday, 24 September 2017



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted September 25, 2017)

All three of the Pan-African artists who’d been resident at Brush tu Art Studio over the past three months are ‘outsiders looking in’ on the Kenyan condition today.

All three are unapologetic about the fact that their final exhibition of the artworks created at Brush tu reflects on what they’ve seen, heard and felt about this country at this critical moment in time.

That exhibition of the three artists’ works opened last Friday night at Kobo Gallery in Kilimani. (It’s on until October 6th.) Two out of the three have a decidedly political perspective on our local scene in their art.  The styles, media and messages of Stacey Okparavero of Nigeria and Timothy Wandula of Rwanda have both been influenced by all they’d garnered about Kenyan politics, including the campaigning and the elections themselves.

Meanwhile, the third artist Lionel Yamadjako of Benin took a broader, more Pan-African perspective in his art. He’s quite the globe trotter, having exhibited all over the continent as well as in Asia and Europe. ‘Yama’ was absent from the opening as he had to be in Congo for another arts event. Nonetheless, he’d left behind a colorful body of works, also on display at Kobo.

It was Stacey’s multimedia contribution to the exhibition that stands out most powerfully. For not only is she a graceful and agile performance artist who created a fascinating video that she calls ‘The Puppeteer”. She’s also created a series of abstract paintings using pen, brush and Indian ink (with a touch of gold flecks) that focuses, like the video, on consciousness and one’s mental capacity to be strong, free from puppeteers’ (including politicians’) mental manipulations and be present in the ‘now’.

Stacey’s video conveys a similar message only it’s more graphic and more symbolic as Stacey herself portrays someone who’s listened to politicians’ hypnotic powers of persuasion and manacled herself with rope that she’s wound around her wrists. But then, she somehow becomes conscious of her own mental capacity to withstand the puppeteer’s manipulative mesmerism and claims her freedom by removing the rope around her wrists by herself.

The video and the paintings go together as a kind of installation. At the same time, Stacey has written philosophic commentaries in miniscule print on each painting. The tiny text ironically compelled one to read each one carefully, only to discover the artist isn’t only a painter and performance artist. She’s also a philosopher with a profound message to share, especially now as Kenyans approach a second election.

Timothy Wandula also was influenced by Kenyan politicians’ campaigning style, especially the posters that he saw plastered all over Eastlands where Brush tu is located. They mostly featured not one but two politicians, which struck him as a little odd. One was running in the local area while the other was a political party big wig.

His series of eight smaller paintings is actually more like four diptychs. Each pair includes two separate portrait-like paintings of anonymous politicians (one atop the other) and linked together like a playing card, be it a king of diamonds or ace of spades.

His three larger paintings also reflected on the election, only now he is looking at wananchi and their approach to voting. Two voters are clear about who their ballot is for while the third stands immobilized by his indecision.

What unifies Wandula’s two sets of paintings, apart from the topic of Kenya’s current election season, are the materials he’d used. The backdrop of all his works is ‘mabati’ corrugated iron sheets that he’s collected from Nairobi streets and alleys. He also uses store-bought metal rods and a bit of paint. On his diptych ‘poster paintings’, he creates a collage effect by adding newspaper clippings of current events and actual playing cards, which suggest that this whole electoral process is a gamble.

All three artists had applied and been accepted to attend the AIR Brush artist residency which was organized by the Brush tu Art Studio with support from the Royal Dutch Embassy. AIR Brush (Artists In Residence) only took off early this year, and it’s so far just a one year project. But it’s been so successful, reaching out to both local and Pan-African artists that all the artists affiliated with the Brush tu Art collective are hopeful they’ll find means to continue the project. The cross referencing across the region and across the country has been beneficial to all.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 19 September 2017)

Most Kenyan artists work either from home or in studios where they share space with other ‘creatives’.

Mercy Kagia at Polka Dot Gallery (photo by Margaretta)

But not Mercy Kagia. She’s more frequently working out in the open air, sitting quietly in public places with her sketch pad, pen or brush in hand. You might see her at railway stations or coffee shops, on a park bench across the street from boda boda or bus stops. (see below)

                                                  Boda boda motorcycle taxis in Murang'a by Mercy Kagia
“I’ve always loved to draw, and I was encouraged by one of my wise art lecturer at University to draw everyday if that was what I wanted to do; so that’s what I do and I love it,” says Mercy. 
“She also told me that if I could draw well, I could do anything else, be it painting, sculpture, whatever,” she adds.

                                                      Mercy teaching a Life Drawing class at Polka Dot Gallery
As a consequence, Mercy went on to do a BFA, a Masters and finally a Ph.D in drawing and illustration from Kingston University London.

“I find people endlessly fascinating, so they are my main focus in drawing,” she says, noting that her sketch pad, pens, paints and brushes are almost always with her. She even had a sleek leather bag specially made so she could conveniently carry those essentials with her wherever she goes.
                              Mercy even draws in local cafes like the Teriyaki Japanese Cafe (with self-portrait)

Of late, Mercy’s been spending lots of time at the Polka Dot Gallery, teaching Life Drawing classes behind windows covered with heavy black sheets to keep all prying eyes off the painters being tutored by Dr. Kagia.
“Mercy’s been teaching Water Color Painting as well as Life Drawing of late,” notes Lara Ray, the owner and curator at the Polka Dot in Karen.

Mercy instructs students in Life Drawing using both male and female models
(photo by Margaretta)
“She’s been doing it here once a fortnight for almost two years. We have both regular attendants who come for every session as well as newcomers and students,” Lara adds. Last Saturday, for instance, there was 16 year old painting, a student from Kenyatta University and several older mothers and grandmothers coming from various backgrounds.

Mercy’s approach to teaching is hands-on, giving each of her students individualized attention. She makes a point of starting off each class by demonstrating what exactly she wants her students to do. She covers everything from how to hold your brush and mix your paints to how to capture contours, lines, shading and shadows of the subject of their attention that day.

                                       Street boys board the backs of lorries for fun, but it can also be hazardous & risky. Drawing by Mercy

 “I’ve been teaching art for many years, mainly at the university level,” says Mercy who’s taught all over the UK, Germany and Bahrain as well as in Kenya. She hopes to start up a proper art school sometime soon. In a sense, the four and eight week sessions that she’s been holding at Polka Dot have been both embryonic and experimental as she’s been testing the waters to see if there’s a demand for professional art instruction such as the kind that she’s been giving.

In fact, Mercy’s style of instruction is so popular with one student, [who also happens to run a tour company] that she proposed her art teacher hold a set of classes at Maasai Mara while based at her Tented Camp.

Mercy agreed, having spent years drawing everywhere from orchestra halls to private weddings, so going to draw animals and landscapes with students at the Mara is a challenge she readily accepted. Details of the tour can be obtained through Polka Dot Gallery.
                                   Bicycles are an essential part of the Nairobi landscape. drawing by Mercy

In the meantime, since she’s come back to Kenya [a bit more than two years ago] Mercy hasn’t mounted a one-woman exhibition of her own. She’s contributed to exhibitions like one at One Off Gallery entitled ‘The Nude’. She also donated one of her drawings to a Silent Auction at the Circle Art Garden recently.

For now, she’s mainly posting her art on social media where many of her drawings (and a few videos) are both on Facebook and Instagram. Recently, she also teamed up with photographer and videographer Eric Gitonga who filmed her drawing guys repairing a piki piki at a proper cycle repair shop. Eric artfully speeded up sections of her working to create an impressive film short.

Another unedited video by Sharon Nderitu is of Mercy flipping through her sketch pad, giving one a quick look at her lovely color and black and white illustrations of Kenyans’ everyday life.
                       Quick and easy street meals are another common feature of Kenyan everyday life. By Mercy

Mostly when Mercy does her drawings, she works individually; but she’s also part of an online art group called Urban Sketches. “It began several years ago in the UK, but now it’s global,” says Mercy who spent last Saturday afternoon with her ad hoc Nairobi Urban Sketches group drawing train engines at Nairobi Railway Museum.

“The group is open to anyone and they can find out where and when if they check on Facebook. Everything is there,” Mercy adds.
Mercy giving individualized instruction during her Water Color&Life Drawing class at Polka Dot Gallery