Tuesday, 28 November 2017



By Margaretta Wa Gacheru (posted November 29 2017

Geraldine Robarts has been a prolific painter from the time she picked up the brush a loving relation gave her as a little girl. She hasn’t stopped painting since then.

That may explain why Geraldine will hold a gigantic Christmas sale of her artworks this weekend, December 2nd and 3rd, from 10am to 6pm at her home at 56 Kibo Lane in Karen.

More than 2000 colorful oil paintings and prints will be available at more than ‘affordable’ prices. The prints will start from Sh1,000 each while the paintings will run anywhere from Sh5,000 on up.

Geraldine can easily be described as a doyenne of East African art, having taught countless Kenyan and Ugandan artists from the 1970s. She spent several years at Makerere University teaching at the Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art. Subsequently, she moved with her family to Kenya where she continued to teach at Kenyatta University’s Department of Fine Art.

But Geraldine’s passion for painting compelled her to make the choice to focus solely on her art. For several years she’s worked full-time painting with a preference for oils and a passion for brilliant sun-kissed equatorial colors.

Her paintings and prints range from naturalism and impressionism to semi-abstract and abstract expressionist works. What’s more, they come in all sizes, from miniature to monumental such that they can be easily sent by post to loved one overseas or upcountry.

But one might be more inclined to buy a holiday present for one’s self since it’s rare that one will see Geraldine’s art be available for rock-bottom prices.

She’ll also show more pricey pieces, especially works that have taken her hours and days to complete. But it’s worth a trip to Karen just to see what artworks you might afford to take away and enjoy.

If you think you’ll find a moment to make it out to Geraldine’s and Mike’s place, they request that you give them a call at 0722528931 or send them an email at Fairhead.michael@gmail.com.



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 28, 2017)

The Urembo exhibition and Hekima performances concurrently running at the Nairobi National Museum through January 31st, 2018 are just the tip of the iceberg of all that TICAH (Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health) is doing in Nairobi this holiday season.

TICAH is best known for its instructive and colorful calendars that its executive director, Mary Ann Burris and her team have produced annually since 2010.

But this year, TICAH’s brought together many of the Kenyan artists who’ve contributed to beautifying the calendar with mosaic artist Eric Manya who has curated their art together with Kenyan material culture from the Museum’s permanent collection. That exhibition plus a series of workshops and art talks are what constitute the ongoing Urembo show.

Mary Ann also asked the former director of Kenya Cultural Centre Aghan Odero to assist with working among indigenous elders and contemporary storytellers to coordinate in several ceremonies and performances during Hekima.

But where TICAH has been putting a major portion of its resources and energies this past year is into a major public art project based inside Uhuru Gardens on Langata Road.

Calling it ‘Dream Cona’, the project received a ‘soft opening‘ this past weekend when a team of Kenyan artists spent all day covering the 30 feet-long (and nine-feet tall) wall that TICAH constructed with a blend of colorful images, symbols and spray-painted graffiti art. The artists were assisted by students from Brookhouse School who helped paint the wall. They also took part in art workshops, one run by Kenyan sculptor Morris Foit, another run by Billy Mutua on linocut printmaking.

But the substantial part of the wall mural was created by the team of local artists including Patrick Mukabi, Mary Ogembo, Nadia Wamunyu, Charles Ngatia, Billy Mutua and BSQ members Bebetu Thufu and Ken Otieno among others.

“We call it a soft launch because we don’t care to make a big splash,” said Mary Ann. “We just want to create more spaces in Nairobi where Kenyans can come and express themselves freely,” she added.

In fact, the wall had already been painted once. “We actually intend to paint it over several more times. But then we’ll take photographs of each mural and transpose it onto big banners that we’ll keep as part of our Dream Cona collection,” said Mary Ann as she pointed to the first banner reflecting the colorful creativity of the first wall mural.

But the wall is only one structure that TICAH’s constructed on the acre-square-sized plot at one end of Uhuru Gardens. The other is a good sized (40 feet by 40 feet) tented performance space that will be used as everything from a theatre stage to a dance and DJ arena to a site where workshops and ceremonies can take place.

Over this past weekend it was used as a storytelling site where the Sigana storytellers performed throughout Saturday. Music was also provided by the popular band, Kenge Kenge.

But Dream Cona is not TICAH’s first foray into Uhuru Gardens. More than a year ago, Mary Ann together with a number of artists constructed a stone labyrinth they call ‘Mahali pa Umoja’ which is similar to the ‘Peace Path’ labyrinth that TICAH built at the Nairobi Museum two years ago with stones from all over Kenya, including Kisii stone sculptures carved by the esteemed Kenyan sculptor Elkana Ong’esa.

This time the labyrinth was conceived with mainly ‘njiru’ building stones while Eric Manya created a multifaceted mosaic at its centre. But the concept behind both laybrinths is similar. Both are sites for meditation and for drawing together peace-making energies from all over Kenya.

“We have had elders come from all over Kenya this year to bless Mahali pa Umoja,” said Mary Ann. They have come from the Samburu, Maasai, Turkana, Giriama, Kamba, Luo, Kikuyu, Kisii, Luhya, and Digo among others. “But the majority of elders have been Maasai since we feel that historically this has been their land,” she added.

Having secured all the necessary permits and papers to utilize the acreage at Uhuru Gardens, Mary Ann said the aim of the whole monumental project is to open up more public space for Kenyans to come enjoy themselves and if they wish, to get involved in the creative process.



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 29, 2017)

Guaranty Trust Bank has only been in Kenya for the last four years. And Ibukun Obegaike has only been Managing Director of GTB in Kenya for the past two and a half years.

But that didn’t stop the Nigeria-born MD from putting into practice one of her bank’s top Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies which is promotion of African arts both locally and internationally.

“From the very beginning, our bank has been supportive of the arts,” said Ms Odegbaike in an exclusive interview with BD. She recalls that when GTB’s head office in Lagos was initially opened in 1991, one of its attractions was the huge painting by a leading Nigerian artist that dazzled the clients as they walked in the front door. 

Art, she says, is one of those intangible items that contributes to a more people-friendly atmosphere in the bank. It also promotes greater awareness of the visual arts.

To illustrate how much her bank appreciates African art, not only in Nigeria but also in Kenya, GTB (Kenya) Ltd. sponsored an evening exhibition of contemporary East African art at the Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel yesterday.

Curated by William Ndwega’s Little Art Gallery, there were twelve artists whose works were on display last night.

They included Michael Soi, Patrick Kinuthia, Peter Elungat, Anne Mwiti, Michael Musyoka, Yassir Ali, Emily Odongo, Haji Chilonga, Joshua Mainga, Douglas Musyoke, Coster Ojwang and Jjuuko Hoods.

The exhibition was only for one night, but Ms. Odegbaike says the Kempinski show is simply the first step in GTB’s support of the arts in Kenya.

“Remember that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step,” she said, implying there were more steps the bank intended to take with local artists.

The second step is likely to be the introduction of Kenyan artists to GTB’s online African art platform.

The ‘Art 635’ virtual gallery was only launched in October 2017. But already it’s enabling mainly Nigerian artists to access online audiences and markets.

“We have another online market hub which will enable artists to sell their work more easily,” she added.

What’s remarkable about the Nigerian-born bank is that it not only has a solid commitment to creating a service-oriented culture in its banking system. It also sees the arts as playing an integral role in advancing that service-orientation.

What’s equally encouraging is that Art 635 invites all African artists to join the online gallery. So that “first step” taken last night could very well lead to greater regional cooperation and appreciation of East African art.

Monday, 27 November 2017


                                      Colourfall by Ian Davenport was at the Venice Biennale 2017, Giardini

Friends, I apologize but I just realized I can still access an earlier blog that I create in 2011. I abandoned Margaretta's Jua Kali Diary last year because I didn't have the techno skill to figure out how to access it. Now I've got it so I will be trying to share on both blogs until I can resolve my 'Identity Crisis' and decide if I should go back to being Jua Kali (which I am in any case) or stick with this more impersonal title. Thanks for your patience. I love the fact that somehow I started Jua Kali Diary just shortly before I came back to Kenya from the US where I was completing my Ph.D. So there's quite a bit more writing by me there.



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted by November 27, 2017)

Every Nairobian who has made their way to the CBD (Central Business District) has seen monumental sculptures standing outside in public spaces.

If they have come to town, they have surely seen the giant figure created by the Kenyan sculptor Oshoto Ondula of Tom Mboya standing tall just next to the National Archives. And if they walk half a block from Tom Mboya’s site to the start of Kimathi Street, they will find the larger-than-life sculpture of Dedan Kimathi, created by Kevin Oduor who collaborated with Kenyatta University.

Probably the most renowned outdoor sculpture in Nairobi stands right next to Kenyatta International Conference Centre. It’s the one of the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, dressed in full stately regalia.

But outdoor sculptures need not be only of national leaders or even public figures like the paleontologist Louis Leakey whose sculpture, created by the late Charles Bwiri, is seated outside the Louis Leakey Auditorium at the Nairobi National Museum.

The Museum itself is proof of that point. There’s amazing public art at the main entrance of the Museum. One stone sculpture, called ‘Mother and Child’, is by the Ugandan artist Frances Nnaggenda while a humble ‘Working Man’ is a short distance away created by Jackson Wanjau.

And leave alone the gigantic Dinosaur and life-size elephant called Ahmed that all school children who visit the museum know very well. They also know about the tall glass and metal sculpture that’s been erected just behind the Nnaggenda, although they probably don’t know it was created by the glass artist Tonney Mugo.

Outdoor sculptures have increasingly become popular in both public and private gardens. Two that were specifically commissioned for the Garden City Mall are by Maggie Otieno and Peterson Kamwathi. And three that stand tall and proud on the grounds of George Waititu’s Tafaria  Castle are all by Joseph Bertiers Mbathia.

But one need not own a shopping mall or even a castle to appreciate the way an outdoor sculpture can beautify someone’s garden. Just ask the American-born scholar Dr. Dana Seidenberg about the pleasure she finds in both owning Kenyan art, including sculptures that she’s placed all around her garden, and supporting local artists in the process.  

Her two Kenyan sculptors whose works she owns the most of are Irene Wanjiru and Elijah Ogira.

“I have pieces by other Kenyan artists but I’m particularly fond of Irene’s and Ogira’s art,” says Dana. Both artists work mainly in wood, but interestingly enough Dana has placed more of Irene’s sculptures out in her garden while Ogira’s more functional sculptures are to be found at the front entrance of Dana’s home.

According to the former Principal of the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art, Boniface Kimani, most of the sculptures that he creates are commissioned by private individuals who know the quality of his art.

“Some of the commissions are for sculptures that remain inside people’s homes. But quite a few are meant to stand outside the house, either at the front entrance, outside the front door or out in the garden,” says Boniface who resigned from BIFA sometime back in order to do his art full-time.

Another sculptor who spent a lot of time creating sculptures for people’s private gardens and front gates is the late Expedito Mwebe. His son Michael Angelo worked closely with his father and so, he can point out practically every house in town that’s got an example of his and his father’s outdoor art.  

One man who says he loves the sculpture he created at the front entrance of his home is Edward Njenga. The ninety-five year old sculptor says the giant bust of a beautiful young girl which is situated just outside the front gate is an excellent marker to help visitors easily find their way to his house.

The other artist who’s created outdoor sculptures to show visitors the way to her home and business is Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass Research and Training Trust. In fact, all around the grounds of Nani’s place one can see outdoor sculptures (made both by her, members of her staff and visiting artists) that will make one wish that they too could have outdoor sculptures in their backyard.


Sunday, 26 November 2017


Why this session on How to write about contemporary Kenyan art critically and creatively? (GIVEN at Brush tu art studio, Saturday November 25, 2017)

                                                                                       At Venice Biennale 2017 Colourfall by Ian Danford
1.     Mentoring: people always talk about the need to mentor, to share/pass on information. I’ve been doing this work a long time and feel there needs to be more.

2.     Writing is IMPORTANT: writing for media is WRITING THE FIRST DRAFT OF HISTORY.

3.     PUBLIC RECORD: If Kenyan artists not written about, there won’t be public record about them. As if they don’t exist. Future researchers on Kenyan art won’t know about artists like Etale Sukuro, Eric Ndovu, John Diang’a or even Charles sekano.

4.     I wrote about all of them but they could be forgotten if we don’t write

5.     Demystifying the process: not elite. Anyone can write about art (don’t need art school). U do need to:

a.      Visit as many exhibitions, artists’ studios as you can

b.     Read other people’s reviews from top publications. Study them, the structure, the styles, the tone of the writing

c.      Yes go to archives, go online but much more not online

d.     Yes, read art books, read online info but don’t take online as gospel. Eg.

e.      One online guide said all you need is to i. Describe what you see, ii. Analyze parts (form,color,line,texture,tone,shape,pattern, light/dark, bright/dull, composition), iii. Interpret: figure out meaning (how?), iv. Judgement (what? Who’s perspective? How do you judge?

6.     GENRE of Not just painting, drawing sculpture, print-making, photography, but also architecture, murals, collage and so many techniques, media

7.     But several key points the art books don’t necessarily cover: like the 5 W’s+1H: who,what,where,when,why and how?

8.     Also, when writing, who is your AUDIENCE? Academic, popular, just artists, local, global? etc.

9.     CRITIQUE: Now it’s time for you to critique some works.

Thursday, 23 November 2017



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 22, 2017)

Italian Institute of Culture’s director Francesca Chiesa will be leaving Kenya at the year’s end. But as her parting gift to the country, she just organized a Kenyan writers’ workshop on the Historical Novel.

Aiming to encourage young Kenyans not just to write their own historical novels but also to learn more about Kenyan history itself, Dr Chiesa opened the four-day workshop last Monday at the Stanley Hotel by underscoring the importance of writers, especially those who can tell captivating stories against the backdrop of their country’s history.

“The function of the writer is to preserve a people’s memory,” she said.

To make her perspective practical, she’d invited three Italian intellectuals to share ideas about their experience with the historical novel and history generally.

Carlo A. Martigli had been a banker before becoming a best-selling historical novelist whose book ‘999, the last Guardian’ sold more than a million copies and was translated into several languages. His role in the workshop was to offer clear simple tips on how to structure one’s historical novel and create compelling characters within the context of a major historical moment.

Matteo Ogliari is an historian who shared his experience using Kenya’s National Archives and MacMillan Library to research his doctoral dissertation and showed the Kenyans how useful archives and libraries can be in constructing their own historical novels.

Finally, Giacomo Brunoro, with former classmates from University of Padua, organized a whole cultural festival around the historical novel. Their ‘Chronicae Festival Internationale del Romanzo Storico’ is actually the second cultural festival that Giacomo cofounded with friends. The first was the Sugar Pulp Festival.

In both cases, their ambition has been to promote their home region in and around Padua as well as to create vibrant multi-faceted and multi-media festivals that amplify various aspects of literature and culture. Sugar Pulp’s focus is contemporary pop culture while Chronicae’s is historical fiction.

Sugar Pulp itself is the name of Giacomo’s brand, with the ‘sugar’ deriving from the beetroot that’s plentiful in their semi-rural region and the ‘pulp’ alluding to popular culture, such as the film ‘pulp fiction’.

Launched humbly in 2011 once he’d returned to Padua after years working in broadcast, print and online media in Milan, Giacomo’s vision for the Sugar Pulp Festival is for it to one day become as big, multicultural and global as the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

He’s got a similar dream for the Chronicae Festival even though it’s more specialized than Sugar Pulp’s which covers all facets of pop culture. During its festival, Super Pulp explores everything from comic books, paperback books, audiobooks and ebooks to video games, films TV, live performance and virtual reality.   

Sugar Pulp only launched its Historical Novel ‘Chronicae’ Festival in 2014. But it’s already drawn internationally-acclaimed novelists from around Italy, elsewhere in Europe and the States to take part in the festival. They are all writers who believe, like Francesca, that knowing one’s history is of vital importance but the most enjoyable way to imbibe that history is through the fictional form.

One reason Giacomo agreed with his friends to establish Chronicae was because Italians have a large appetite for cultural festivals. “But we saw there was a gap to be filled among the literary festivals. There was none before ours that focused solely on the historical novel,” he said.

Another reason Sugar Pulp was bound to create a Chronicae platform was because one of its co-founders, Matteo Strukul is himself a writer of historical novels. His trilogy on the Medici family of Florence is award-winning and is already being translated into English, Spanish, and German.

Both Sugar Pulp and Chronicae have vibrant online presences. And while their presence on social media is virtually all in Italian, the example that Giacomo sets for promoting culture and the historical novel is inspirational. So is his passion specifically for Italian culture.

As her last parting project to Kenyans, Francesca created a literary competition during the workshop. The participants were given the challenge of writing an historical novelette which will be judged by her and her three Italian guests.

“The winner will received a round-trip ticket, including accommodations, to Italy where he or she will be guest of honor in April 2018 during the next Chronicae Festival,” she said.

At the time of our going to press, the winner had not yet been named. But clearly, Francesca leaves Kenya having made a powerful mark on the minds of a score of young Kenyan writers, which is no small feat.



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 23, 2017)

Aperture Africa productions has been consistent since I first saw their grand performance of The Jungle Book, the musical just a year ago.

Amar Desai, his wife Jinita and his whole team do everything in high style. From the colorful costuming, choreography and elaborate set design to the special effects, live music and magical moments when one can see children enthralled by the lively events happening on and off stage, Amar as director made the whole show blend together beautifully. That was true for The Jungle Book, the musical just as it was last weekend when Robin Hood charmed the children from start to end.

One must take special note of the large numbers involved in such a show as Robin Hood. Amar doesn’t seem to do anything in a minimalist fashion. His orchestra headed by Andrew Tumbo was substantial and well-rehearsed. My only disappointment is their being tucked away up in the balcony so we the audience had no chance to actually watch them perform. I personally love live performances but logistically, their upstairs station was understandable. For as vast as is the Chandaria stage at Oshwal Centre is, it was just the right size to fit in Sherwood Forest as well as a village market, a cosy dungeon and even a ‘throne’ double-decked above the dungeon where the Sheriff (Bilal Wanjau) had a chance to watch the village below as well as to woo Lady Marion (Maya Spybey) who was utterly disinterested in the advances of this naughty cop.

Only the Sheriff’s team of soldiers were few and certainly no match for the renegades working closely with Robin Hood (Tirath Padam). Otherwise, the cast of Aperture’s musical was huge, including an incredible crew of talented children whose performance clearly inspired countless youth who got actively involved in the production, both by climbing out of their seats to collect the candy tossed to them from the stage and by getting right up on the stage once they saw a signal at the show’s end when they were apparently invited to join their peers and dance along with the whole cast.

Robin Hood was ultimately a joyous affair, despite there having been several dark moments, as when Robin and his fellow outlaws went into battle with the Sheriff’s troops. Such times seemed just a touch too violent for my taste. So was the time when Much (Chandhi Vaya) was being tortured. And so were the scenes when the Sheriff’s men roughed up the locals. It was just a wee bit too scary for me.

But on the other hand, my favorite character in the whole of Robin Hood was the Sheriff, Mr Nasty himself. Bilal Wanjau was delightfully wicked and an unbelievably bad bully to all except for Marion, of course. But even she fell fowl of the Sheriff once she refused his marriage proposal. Her heart was already bound to Robin’s.

The one scene that was beautiful but a little overdone was the love scene when Robin and Marion were ‘alone’ and yet surrounded by dancing white-winged angels. As I sai, their dance was beautiful to watch but it defused the passion of the lovers’ moment. Then again, perhaps that was the point, given the musical was meant mainly for children who don’t have to get acquainted with the way lovers have moments alone.

In any case, the choreography of Robin Hood was impressive except that I wished the fight scenes looked a little less brutal. Otherwise, Aperture Africa deserve all the support they receive from the local business community for its musical extravaganzas that never fail to entertain. I applaud the Desai’s for their professionalism and theatrical excellence.




By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 22, 2017)

This weekend and the next few, there will be no shortage of theatrical entertainment on show in Nairobi.

This past weekend will be a bit difficult to top since there were powerful performances throughout that time. They came from both Aperture Africa Productions staging ‘Robin Hood the Musical’ and from the Kenya International Theatre Festival where Kenyatta University students performed Francis Imbuga’s The Successor, Reagon Ochoo’s The Mirage and Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband has gone mad again. Meanwhile, troupes from Uganda and South Africa gave spine-tingling performances as well.

Nonetheless, the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio hasn’t let us down once since it came into being nearly two years back when the British director-actor Stuart Nash got together with Dr. Edwin Gichangi and decided to start up a theatre school at Kenya Cultural Centre.

Tonight ‘Grease’ the American rock musical opens at the Kenya National Theatre and it should be heaps of fun to watch. With the lead characters being played by Kaz Lucas and Elsaphan Njoka, the show can hardly go wrong. They both are sure-fire professionals who can sing, dance and act which are talents essential to making the show dazzle and delight. But so are the likes of Nice Githinji, Nick Ndeda and Ian Mbugua (who’s been a busy man, working on two shows at once!)

‘Grease’ will run through this Sunday night with matinees both weekend days. It will be back again December 8th through 10th after the word gets around that it’s a show you won’t want to miss!

Speaking of Ian Mbugua, he’s been working closely with Susan Bantu at Brookhouse School where he teaches Drama and she’s directing Tennessee Williams’ hard-core modern classic, ‘The Glass Menagerie’. The show opened Wednesday night at the school. It will run through Saturday night so you had best get tickets right away.

Then next weekend, Martin Kigondu’s Prevail Arts Productions returns to the Daystar University stage with Martin’s latest script, entitled ‘What Happens in the Night.’

This is another case of the word getting round after ‘What Happens’ was staged just once last month. So the director-producer and scriptwriter Martin had to comply with popular demand and bring the show back next Saturday, December 2nd at 5pm.

The other important performance that should not be missed is by the doyenne of storytelling, Maimouna Jallow. She’ll perform in the finale of ‘Re-imagining Storytelling’ on Thursday night, November 30th from 8pm at The Alchemist in Wetlands.

Finally, Heartstrings opens December 6th in ‘Nobody is Leaving’ at Alliance Francaise. 
PS. Pantomime this weekend at Braeburn School by Braeburn Players.
pps. Nutcracker the ballet coming next week too.



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 23, 2017

The jazz duo from Austria, b.good vogel, will be performing Tuesday night from 6pm at the Michael Joseph Centre in Westlands.

Identifying themselves as an electro/acoustic duo, both Marc Vogel and Barry Good (aka Lukas Schiener) are highly trained musicians. They’ll specialize in their Nairobi debut in modern jazz and funky groove music. But those labels can’t embrace what they’ll do with one drum set, one saxophone, a synthesizer and master keyboard.

b. good vogel are also poets and singers as well as instrumentalists. So one can expect a fascinating form of groovy jazz as it will be mixed with slam poetry, original compositions and a style of music that should be brand new to Nairobi.

They’ve explained in advance that their performance will begin with simple acoustic (non-electronic) sounds coming from Vogel’s drums and Good’s jazz sax. But once they get on the synthesizer and master keyboardd, their music will grow and build up into what’s bound to sound like a large orchestral ensemble.

It’s sad that the two will only give one scheduled performance next Tuesday. But as they are guests of the Austrian Embassy, they may be persuaded to perform in other arenas before they head back home to Vienna. Come to Michael Joseph Centre at the Safaricom Building Tuesday to find out more.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 22, 2017)

Now that the Supreme Court has confirmed the election of the Uhuru-Ruto ticket and the country is experiencing a state of calm for the first time in many months, there are a few things that have to change about the way the incumbents run this country. Or at least how the two Big Men operate.

First among them must be their curb on frivolous spending. In the Business Daily of November 22, we read front page news that ‘Uhuru, Ruto top State Sh5.7bn leisure spenders.’ This report is shameful, especially when poverty rocks the land and the bulk of the Opposition consists of jobless men and women who’d probably not be on the street burning tires and playing hide and seek with police if they had employment to keep them occupied and salaried. An empty stomach is an intense incentive to demand a major change in the political scene.

Those hungry mouths are filled with even more ire and outrage when they see how the newly-elected are living leisurely and luxurious lifestyles while they scramble to satisfy basic needs for food, clothing, shelter and even basic sanitation such as running water and public (not flying) toilets.

One must ask whether either the President or his Deputy ever spend time with people in the slums, other than when they do drive-throughs during pre-election days. This I doubt. But this is one reason why the Opposition has such a huge following among slum-dwellers. They know the impoverished are disgruntled and prepared to demand ‘Change at all costs!’ Savvy politicians like James Orengo know that, as the Nobel-prize winning poet-lyricist Bob Dylan used to sing, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.” And so our hungry and angry slum-dwellers are ripe for revolutionary action. They are easily mobilized as the Opposition has so effectively proved in these past few months when the Big Men have largely been silent and less than eloquent in defense of their positions.

What’s worse, when we read that President Uhuru and his Deputy have recently received salary hikes, and then also find they use tax-payer-fueled funds to entertain themselves and their friends more extensively than even our profligate Congressmen who get some of the fattest salaries (compared to other MPs and Senators) in the world, we have to ask, have we really elected individuals who put the interests of their people first?

This is all we want to see in Kenya, Africa and everywhere in the world. We are crying to see authentic statesmen and women who run for office wanting to put the basic concerns of their people first. After that, they may have visions of how to be leading peacemakers out to reconcile feuding clans and countries. They might even want to wean their people off of fossil fuels and steer them towards using renewable, environmentally-friendly energy-sources.

But politicians do not have time to be planning to fulfill such people-friendly priorities if they are busy spending other people’s hard-earned taxes on frivolous events such as cocktail parties and nyama-choma dinners (requiring the slaughter of countless cows, goats and sheep all of whose waste sends out heaps of methane gas to pollute the air).

All the helicopter and private jet travel are also meaningless if they save time for the elites while leaving the rest of us looking on from our hovels and homeless shelters.

Yet we’d still love to applaud you as leaders we can look up to. You make that difficult, however.

Thus, it should be obvious to the newly re-seated politicians that the uproar and unrest that Kenyans have experienced in the last few months requires that they self-reflect and change their ways to become better representatives of all the Kenyan people, not just in theory, not just in bombastic or rhetorical terms, but in deeds that we can see and appreciate for their doing the right thing and putting the people’s needs first.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017


I just got back from Venice Biennale where this wall by Ian Danford called 'Colourfall' struck my eye.
This is just a reminder that this Saturday, November 25, from 11am we'll be sharing ideas about how to write critically and creatively about contemporary kenyan art. i'll be at Brush tu Art Studio in Buru Buru phase 1. Easy to get to on matatu no. 32 or 36. it's free and if there's interest maybe we can keep the conversation going.
                               Collage art by Rosemary Karuga

Naivasha by Patrick Kinuthia whose art is on the cover of my book The Transformation of Contemporary Kenyan Art (1960-2010)

Monday, 20 November 2017


                       Note there are no water-taxis on the Grand Canal. That's cuz transit workers were on strike that day!

                                          Walking through Venice, one sees art everywhere
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 20, 2017)

Venice Biennale! It had been my dream to see it this year now that Kenyan artists had finally gotten there. Not that the artists had much help reaching the Biennale from the Kenya government, despite promises made. In fact, the crew of curator Jimmy Ogonga and his selected artists had to find their own means to reach Venice and even to find an exhibition venue at Scuola Palladio on Giudecca island.
Having family in Vicenza, the beautiful city founded by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio in the mid-1500s, I was fortunate to fly into Venice (via Doha) with assurance I’d have a place to stay. We only had the weekend as the family either worked or went to school on weekdays.
Vicenza is just a half-hour train ride away from Venice, so I got a lift early Friday morning to the train. Then I planned to take the water-taxi to the two major centres where Biennale artists and Pavillions were showcasing artistic works.
Ansenale and Giardini both had stops on the Grand Canal. But to my dismay, the public transit workers chose that Friday to go on strike! I managed to find one rogue water-taxi but it only stopped at the Rialto station. After that I had to walk.
There couldn’t be a more exquisite city than Venice to walk through. Not only are there lovely shops filling every walk-way featuring everything from jewelry, glass, high fashion, and gelato ice cream to cathedrals, cappuccinos and countless town squares.
What’s amazing about walking through Venice is that it’s absolutely pedestrian-friendly. Leave alone the fact of no cars anywhere. There isn’t one bicycle, motorcycle and even roller skate anywhere on the walks. Only bridges. Countless bridges were to be traversed in order to reach the official Biennale sites, the recommended starting point being Giardini.
Fortunately, there were several outdoor sculpture exhibitions in the lush green parks along the Canal which were worth stopping to see. But my time was running out and I wanted to stop by both Giardini and Arsenale.
Family had helped me book my all-day entry passes. So when I finally reached Giardini, I didn’t stand in line. Still the challenge was, where to begin? On the right were the national pavilions, but I chose to go left towards the major contemporary art assembly hall entitled La Biennale. Curated by Christine Macel, her Biennale mission statement was open-ended as she wanted the artists to do as they wished without her dictates. Was that a mistake? Of course, it was democratic. But sadly, I wasn’t impressed.
I confess I must be biased, but I prefer contemporary Kenyan art to the Western concept of ‘contemporary art’ or what I saw of ‘Vive Arte Viva’.
For instance, one artist burned a bunch of books, then glued them unto a canvas and called it art. Another created an installation called ‘Artist Asleep’ in which you literally saw someone sleeping under a ragged blanket in a brass bed. My favorite was the artist who (like Kenya’s own Rosemary Karuga who had no funds to buy art materials but created anyway) only had nylon stockings which she filled with sand and then shaped into fascinating sculptures.
It was only when I left that giant hall and found the Russian, Danish, Finnish, Venezuelan, Spanish and American pavilions that my enthusiasm for the Biennale was restored. Granted these spaces must have been pricey, but they were filled with fascinating works. I could’ve spent hours in each of them, but there was no time. Venice gets dark from 5pm.
But as I left Giardini, I encountered Mark Bradford’s outdoor color spectrum that was a dazzling way to depart the Biennale. I had to walk miles to get the train so I’d have to see both the Kenyans’ and the Arsenele showcases in two years’ time.
Fortunately, I found another rogue water-taxi that took me back towards the train station. But being ‘rogue’ it didn’t drop me where I wanted, so I had to find a so-called ‘people-mover’ metro train to take me to the Vicenza train station.
Remember the strike! Well, by the time I got to the station, there were no trains to Vicenza. Fortunately, I found one English-speaking Italian student who got me on the train to Verona.
“The Vicenza stop comes just before Verona, so come with me,” he said as we both ran with the crowd, scrambling to find a seat on the last train to Vicenza.
PS. Venice Biennale 2017 closes this Sunday, November 26.

Sunday, 19 November 2017


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 19, 2017)

This year’s Kenya Art Fair at Sarit Centre was a relatively Spartan affair. It felt like there were fewer booths than in years past. In large part this was due to the inflated costs of booking a display booth this year. According to some participants, the fees shot up nearly three times the price of the year before. That cost alone scared away many artists who had hoped to take part in the art fair this year.

The price hike was attributed to Sarit Centre’s overhead issues. But the fact that there were fewer artist talks and panels this year was surprising given the thriving nature of Nairobi’s local art scene. One imagines there could have been many more than four artists to speak on timely topics. But three sessions of art talks is all we got this year. This is in contrast to years past when during the four-day festival, there could have been at least three sessions every day (apart from opening nght). And occasionally three in a morning and two or three in the afternoon.

No doubt, audiences (which largely consisted of up-and-coming younger artists) appreciated hearing from Mukuru-based artist Shabu Mwangi on Friday. For in addition to his having an illustrious career as a painter, he is also the founder the Wajukii Art Project which has mentored many young Kenyan artists from the so-called ‘informal settlements’.

The ‘Q and A’ session on Saturday between the Kenyatta University lecturer and practicing painter Anne Mwiti, Kuona-based artist and co-founder of Brush tu Art David Thuku and Dan Handa, one of the Fair organizers, was also well received.

And on Sunday, young artists were especially keen to hear from Circle Art Gallery co-founder and curator Danda Jacoljmek who offered practical tips and insights into moving forward in the local art industry.

But in years past, the weekend fair usually had at least one or more panel discussions that served to stimulate lively discussions. There were no such panels this year.

However, among themselves artists, who came to the Fair either to display their works or to check out what was on show, had lively discussions. This must have been one of the best things about the Art Fair, that younger artists got a chance to meet and chat with some of the older, more seasoned artists who had decided it was worth investing far more than they had budgeted for to be in the 2017 Art Fair.

For instance, this year three giant sculptures by Joseph Bertiers Mbatia took centre stage at the fair. So when he finally arrived on Sunday afternoon he had a slew of visitors to his booth and to his larger-than-life sculptures wanting to discuss his marvelous artworks.

Another well-seasoned artist who booked a booth of his own and attracted the attention of many young Kenyans was the painter and jewelry artist Njee Muturi. A man who must be the first Kenyan to create exquisite bracelets, necklaces, rings and earrings out of silver spoons and forks, Njee makes jewelry that are truly works of art.

There were approximately ten solo exhibitions at the fair this year. They included artworks by Michael Soi, Patrick Kinuthia, John Ndungu, Pascal Chuma Elaine Kehew, Eddy Ochieng, Patrick Ng’ang’a and Melusine Towler.

But what was equally if not even more exciting about this year’s Fair was seeing so many new faces and even a number of new groups showcasing their art for the first time.

The one I frankly was most excited about was Ziwa Zambarau, a quartet of young Kenyan women artists who have formed one of the first women visual artists’ collectives (HAWA spearheaded by Lydia Galava was the first). The group includes Virginia Wakianda, Moira Bush Kimani, Naitiemu Nyantom and Evilidah Wasai.

There were at least twelve booths devoted to group displays. Among the groups were Dust Depo, Brush tu Art, Bobea Art Centre, The GoDown, Little Art Gallery, The Mix from Kakuma Refugee Camp, Cross Stitch, BIEA, Kenyatta University, Silver, Kimani and Endo, Njogu and Sonko, and of course, Kuona Trust who launched the first Kenya Art Fair and organized it ever since.

One of the most popular venues at the fair, apart from the Wasanii Exhibition, was Caricatures, the booth where artists Paul Njihia, Nadia Wamunyu and James Njoroge created affordable and fun portraits of visitors right on the spot.

Finally, the art fair catalogue was especially well done this year with the cover painting by Hussein Halfawi and the design by Jess Atieno.

Friday, 17 November 2017


     A paper delivered at the Kenya International Theatre Festival, 17 November, 2017

                                         By Dr. Margaretta wa Gacheru

It’s been said that Media write the first draft of history. That’s because they are the eye-witnesses to an event. They are the data collectors, the documentarists who future generations of scholars and students of history (and in this case theatre) must refer to when seeking to understand what really happened back then.

For this reason, I wish to make use of this platform that the Kenya International Theatre Festival and the Kenya National Commission of UNESCO have given me to implore both theatre academics and theatre practitioners to make better use of the media to bear witness to what they do.

I make this request because so often, especially within academia there are theatrical events that take place but are not covered by the press. They may have utility as teaching tools for students, but they also could serve to inspire a wider public and make a wider audience aware of the valuable theatrical events underway in spaces like Kenyatta, Moi, Maseno and other universities in Kenya.

I make this request for another reason. This relates to something discussed on the first day of the Conference by a KU doctoral candidate, Gabriel Thuku. He spoke at length about the value of research for theatre arts academics. I also value research but if there has been no documentation of past theatrical events, then the research on Kenyan theatre will be superficial at best. The research will simply use scholarly papers by researchers who went over the same fields without having detailed information about all that went on during specific periods in Kenya’s professional and amateur theatre.

Dr. Mshai Mwangola-Githonga spoke on the first day of the Conference about one technique used in the social sciences to explore specific topics. It is called ‘auto-ethnography’ and is a qualitative research method that utilizes information garnered from the researcher herself. I wish to employ this method in the next section of my paper as I have been fortunate enough to have been an eye-witness to several decades of Kenyan theatre, both within academia as an undergraduate and graduate student of literature at the University of Nairobi and as a theatre critic writing for Kenyan media. I was also an actor performing with UON’s Free Traveling Theatre under the direction of the Ugandan playwright, director and UON lecturer John Ruganda. I also acted in Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s 1976 debut performance of ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ which was staged first at the Kenya National Theatre and later at FESTAC, the Second World Festival of African Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria.

As a student, I had the good fortune to witness and be part of what I consider to be the Golden Age of Kenyan Theatre. This was when Pan African thespians were living and working in Nairobi, artists like Okot p’Bitek, David Rubidiri, Joe De Graff, Francis Imbuga, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, John Ruganda, Micere Mugo, Janet Young and Mumbi wa Maina.

A number of them were my lecturers; the rest were my mentors who I greatly admired for their dedication to theatre practice and scholarship as well.

What I witnessed and later wrote about as a journalist assigned by my editor, Hilary Ng’weno enables me to speak and write now as someone who pursued both the academicians and the theatre practitioners for stories about what they were doing artistically.

I won’t go into great detail at this time, but I realize there is a tremendous need for today’s theatre arts students to have a far better grasp of Kenyan theatre history than what is available for them to see and study right now. So I will make a quick run through the decades in order to offer a brief survey of that history, starting in the 60s, the decade of Kenyan independence.


The late Sixties is when Ngugi wa Thiong’o spearheaded a cultural revolution at the University of Nairobi, insisting the English Department with its Euro-centric focus be replaced with an Afro-centric focus and renamed the Literature Department.

The core course in the new Literature Departure would be oral literature which later became known as orature. Students were encouraged to go home to interview and collect data in the form of stories and indigenous folktales from their elders. These stories, which had been either ignored or discredited for being unwritten and told in local indigenous languages, were to be seen in a new light. Students would be involved in developing this new field of literature that not only respected indigenous languages but also local people’s culture and oral art forms.

The rest of the curriculum would include Kenyan, West and South African literatures as well as Caribbean, African American, Latin American and also European and American literature.


I was a student at UON starting in the mid-1970s, while this revolutionary sense of culture was alive and thriving. I then was asked by John Ruganda, founder of the UON’s Free Traveling Theatre to rehearse and perform with Kenyan student thespians as we traveled all around the country. This was an immense learning experience.

So was my participation in FESTAC productions with Ngugi and Micere. I was also witness to Ngugi’s creating the Kamiriithu People’s theatre that performed in Kikuyu and staged by local peasants and workers who Ngugi directed, working with a script the peasants helped him to shape although he and Ngugi wa Mirie were the official playwrights. That play ‘I’ll Marry when I want to” had a very powerful political message and one that the Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi didn’t like since it compelled peasants to appreciate the class conditions of the society and the feasibility of an underclass rising to resist the oppressive conditions they were enduring in the current social system.

Ngugi was detained and thespians felt the chill of Moi’s heavy-handed style of censorship. So journalists, thespians and academics either chose to flee the country after that or practice a style of self-censorship that would enable them to survive despite the political scrutiny and surveillance.

All the while this was happening amidst African theatre circles, European amateur and professional theatre was thriving among groups like Nairobi City Players, Lavington Players, the Little Theatre Players of Mombasa, Nakuru Players and others.

One African theatre company that picked up the spirit of indigenizing Kenyan theatre was the Tamaduni Players. Founded by two African women, Janet Young from the Gambia and Mumbi wa Maina from the US, both were professionally trained actors; Mumbi was also teaching at Kenyatta University.

What made Tamaduni special was its effort to bridge the gap between academia and grassroot theatre practice by having its cast members (mostly young theatre students) to go to the streets and collect stories of street children. They then wove those stories together into a play called ‘Portraits of Survival’ which was exceedingly powerful and unprecedented. But Janet left the country with her family soon after that, and Mumbi chose to keep a low profile as a university lecturer after Janet left, especially as her husband, an historian, had been arrested as a political agitator.


In the 80s a lot of theatre performances went on at Kenyatta University, but I didn’t hear much about them as my focus was more on cultural festivals and performances based in and around the Nairobi city centre where many foreign cultural centres were supporting theatre practitioners. In that regard, there were plays performed in English but supported by the Italians, French, German and Americans. This enabled actors to perform their political sentiments while using the metaphors of foreign cultures.

There were also plays staged at UON directed by John Ruganda and the leading theatre group made up of former university students was The Theatre Workshop. Mshai Mwangola and Mueni Lundi were both there as were Oby Obyerodhiambo, Aghan Odero, Johnny Nderitu, Catherine Kariuki and many others.

The Mbalemwezi Players was another set of theatre practitioners who performed on a semi-professional basis and even had annual awards ceremonies which recognized the role of the media, for which I was quite grateful. This was because several of the members had business and marketing backgrounds and understood the role that media played in publicizing their work and attracting audiences.


From the 50s, the European settlers established the Kenya Schools Drama Festival but it was exclusively for European youth. It wasn’t until 1979 that the first Kenyan, Dr Wasambo Were became Inspector of Education in the Ministry of Education and the man overseeing the Africanization of the Drama Festival. This was a wonderful transformation to watch as the students and their teachers served as scriptwriters as well as cast members. The commitment to theatre was and continues to be nurtured through that vehicle. But there was no theatre arts departments in any Kenyan universities as yet so there wasn’t a big issue of bridging the gap between academics and practitioners.


The donor community got quite involved with funding various theatre groups to create performances at community or grassroots levels to educate the public about such burning social issues as HIV-AIDS, Family Planning and FMG. Many theatre practitioners got involved with such ventures in the name of Theatre for Development and Theatre for Education.

One of the leading groups that started up at this time was called Muijiza Players. Started by James Falkland who ran the Phoenix Players (which never lost the stigma of being an expatriate theatre), Muijiza was led by Caroline Odongo. The players became an avenue for Kenyan playwrights to be born and others to get going as directors, actors etc. Muijiza didn’t survive beyond the 90s but it propelled a number of practitioners into full-time careers in the theatre. A number of smaller theatre groups grew up in this period such as Fanaka Players, Friends Theatre, Festival of Creative Arts and Heartstrings Kenya.


I was out of the country for most of the first decade of 2000-2009 but it was during this period that the first Theatre Arts Department was established at Kenyatta University. Several years later, more Theatre Arts departments were established at Moi and Maseno Universities. These departments have apparently had very little contact with theatre practitioners like Heartstrings and FCA.

But this conference is highlighting the need for greater collaboration between the academics and the theatre practitioners. I know I am missing a number of theatre groups and productions such as the revival of Nairobi City Players (formerly all European) by Kenyans. Strathmore University is another private institution that has taken theatre very seriously. And a group like The Performance Collective is promoting storytelling which is carrying on from the Sigana Storytellers, a group started in the 2000s.

The point I wish to make in conclusion is that a great deal has been conducted since Kenyan Independence. There is so much I almost forgot two important Theatre Institutions which were established, one in the 1970s at Kenya National Theatre, the other in the 1980s at the French Cultural Centre. Both were unaffiliated with academic institutions but both played important pedagogical roles when there were no theatre training centres in Kenya at the time: the first was the Nairobi Drama School led by Tirus Gathwe; the other was the Nairobi Theatre Academy. Neither one has been covered well by the media but they can serve as important sites for research into the history of Kenyan theatre. Also, a number of Kenyans performed in European stage productions and a few, like John Sibi-Okumu have carried on their love for theatre. But many more have gotten caught up in other life styles and careers.

So I hope that both theatre academicians and practitioners will be more aggressive in making contacts with the media and getting themselves into publications as well as on the radio and television to let the wider public gain knowledge of the vitality of Kenyan theatre and also encourage them to come out and attend productions.

Thanks again the KITF, KU and UNESCO

Wednesday, 15 November 2017


                                                          Love is in bloom, almost, in Glass Menagerie by Brookhouse School youth
                                                 Kevin Kimani, founder of the Kenya International Theatre Festival
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted November 15, 2017)

As impressive as is the rich array of musical theatre shows over the next fortnight, the straight plays are also productions not to be missed.
The first set of weekend performances begin last night at Alliance Francaise and run almost non-stop all the way through the weekend. That’s because they’ll be part of the Kenya International Theatre Festival.
KITF is a festival that feels like it’s premiering this year even though it was launched a year ago by Kevin Kimani; only he ran the festival on a shoestring in 2016, out of love for the theatre and a desire to see Kenyan theatre grow beyond national borders.
This year Kimani’s aspirations have materialized more substantially although he is still short of funds. He’s gratefully gotten support from UNESCO which has enabled him to have three pan-African troupes come to Kenya to perform.
The Ugandan dance group Black Lace performed last night for the Festival’s official opening. They will dance again on Sunday at the closing. The South African will stage Devil’s Disciple both Saturday afternoon and Sunday night, also at the Festival closing.
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean troupe was apparently waylaid by the political disruption in Harare. But if they arrive in time, they will perform as scheduled.
Tonight at 6pm, Kenyatta University will stage Francis Imbuga’s modern classic, The Successor. Then on Saturday, KU will also stage Our Husband has gone Mad Again by Nigerian playwright Ola Rotimi followed by an original play by KCA University.
Finally on Sunday, The Mirage will open the afternoon plays at 1pm followed by ‘The Goat or Who is Sylvia?’ and the closing shows will be given by the Ugandans and the South Africans.
The following weekend, Ian Mbugua (who will be fresh from performing in Aperture Africa’s Robin Hood the Musical) presents his theatre students from Brookhouse School in the Tennessee Williams modern classic, The Glass Menagerie. Directed by Susan Bantu, the show runs from November 22nd through Saturday November 25th.
Finally, by popular demand, Prevail Arts Production is bringing back Martin Kigondu’s original play, What Happens in the Night on December 2nd at Daystar University. The auditorium at Daystar is easy to find and the show is not confined to students only. The show stars Chi Chi Seii, Nick Ndeda, Shivishe Shivisi, Mourad Sadat and Salim Gitao, directed by Martin Kigondu.