Tuesday, 20 August 2019

FEMINISM ON THE LINE IN ‘CORPORATE WIFE’



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 August 2019)

When the history of 21st century Kenyan theatre finally gets written, Seth Busolo is bound to be identified as one of the country’s finest stage producer-directors.
For he not only knows how to assemble a highly professional cast and crew as we just saw this past weekend when his theatre company (Wholesome Entertainment) put on his ‘Corporate Wife’ at Alliance Francaise.
Busolo also has the advantage of being a brilliant scriptwriter who creates characters crafted so close to the bone of real-life Kenyans with all their complications and contradictions that no one who’s seeking insights into the Kenyan character should miss one of his plays.
This was especially true in the case of ‘Corporate Wife’ which Busolo was wise enough to get a first-class thespian like Mkamzee Mtawale to direct. Despite Mkamzee being one of the busiest actors in Kenya today (being on stage, film and TV almost simultaneously), she still found time to direct Busolo’s latest drama-comedy. It was she who ensured the show was both nuanced and suspenseful. Her direction also  kept us cringing as this one woman, Suzanne (Pauline Kyamo Komu), the ‘corporate wife’ is so caught up with becoming a corporate success that she forgets to be kind, mindful and respectful towards the people she’d previously cared about most.
That includes her spouse, David (played masterfully by Justin Miriichi), her best friend Diane (Marianne Nungo), and even her crazy nephew Kioko (Justin Marunguru).
The one thing that is slightly confusing about the show is the topic of feminism. But that is understandable since the concept of gender equality (which is essentially what feminism means) is hardly visible anywhere in the world, leave alone in Kenya.
But the play should generate important debates since every woman in the show represents a different characterization of what it means to be a woman, wife, worker and feminist in Kenya today.
There is Suzanne who wants to make it in the corporate world. However, she is obstructed from performing at her best by her boss, Jack (Alfred Munyua), who is flagrantly chauvinistic in the sense that he can’t stand seeing women stepping into previously all-male domains. He sees Suzanne advancing on the job and does all he can to frustrate her every move. He even admits that if she’d compromised herself sexually with him, she’d have had a better chance of getting ahead.
Suzanne also listens too hard to her girlfriend Diane (Marianne Nungo) who encourages her to not be ‘held back’ by her husbannd David, especially after he loses his job, leaving her to be the family bread-winner.
One could easily call Diane a feminist. But then she also shows little regard for Suzanne’s decision to marry David in the first place.
Meanwhile, Blessing (Kate Khasoa) is the sort of woman who defers to patriarchy and easily accepts her second-class social status. However, she’s also petty and plays an active role in bringing Suzanne down in the eyes of her best friend, her future boss, Sandra (Daisy Busolo) and even her spouse.
But Sandra seems to be the most progressive woman in the play. She knows what she wants, is not impressed with empty verbiage and is prepared to give other women opportunities to work for a fair wage.
Suzanne is so hungry for corporate success that she accepts Sandra’s job offer without consulting David first or even thinking twice about cutting her best friend out of a senior position, while taking it for herself instead.
Ultimately, both David and Diane call her out for her bad behavior. Diane explodes in thorough-going disgust that a life-long friend could sink to such treachery. And David reminds her of how she broke their vows, especially by ignoring their original plans and making self-serving decisions rather than sustaining a happy, albeit humble family and home.
The ending should conceivably spur lively debate. David accepts a job offer to go to work for Diane in Zanzibar. However, he’s cajoled by Suzanne to stick around and try to make their marriage work. His is a difficult position, and Miriichi leaves us guessing as he lingers over the choice of whether to leave his wife or stay.
He only decides in the final moments of the play, but I won’t spoil it by saying which way he goes. The audience had strong opinions about the direction he took. But in order to find out yourself, you may have to ask Seth Busolo to stage his ‘Corporate Wife’ again.




CREATING A GARDEN OF EDEN



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 August 2019)

If someone wonders what the Garden of Eden looked like, she only needs to visit one home in Westlands to meet Tessa and Joseph D’Souza. The moment you turn into their driveway leading to the house and grounds that they’ve developed over the last 40 years, you’ll be in awe of the multiplicity of green growing things that carpet their ’Eden’.

“Before we moved in, the land had been part of a coffee plantation,” says Joe, a civil engineer and retired restaurateur who recalls how they had to uproot all the coffee before he could construct their spacious home.
“Initially, all we planted were trees,” says Tessa who didn’t take up gardening right away. Instead, they planted avocado, guava and rubber trees as well as plenty of palms and Flame trees.

It was just 15 years ago, after visiting a friend who had a splendid garden that Tessa decided to try her hand at gardening. Previously, she’d been a personal assistant to various corporate bosses before becoming the chief caterer for the International School of Kenya.
“I didn’t consult anyone. I just visited roadside nurseries and picked the plants I liked,” says the lady who now knows the names of virtually every single, flower, shrub and tree in her garden. “I started with anthurium and bromeliad, but as I was still working, I had plant one patch of land at a time.”
Nonetheless, she admits that now, the only item she shops regularly for (apart from family food) is plants. And over the last decade and a half, she, assisted by Joe, have created a wonderland of greenery that includes everything from hibiscus shrubs, orchids and bird of paradise to succulents, purple petrea and air plants which she says “only live on fresh air and love,” without a speck of soil.
Air plants are just one of the magical aspects of the D’Souza’s garden. They hang from practically all the trees, and they flourish just as does every other flower, shrub and tree that grows on their grounds. Air plants grow so well that Tessa is constantly having to clip them and create a whole other plant.
“The birds love the air plant since they pull out its threads to build their nests,” says Tessa who adds that both she and Joe love the birds that visit them all year round. “We have 15 bird feeders and ten water trays, so the birds are happy with us.”
For better or worse, the food and drink also attract two monkeys who are big consumers of her avocados and guavas. They also go for plants that look edible, which is one of the main reasons Joe constructed two ‘Shade Houses’ on the land.

The shade houses are covered in mesh which provides just enough light, but also plenty of shade. “Some plants don’t do well in direct light. They need shade to grow,” says Tessa whose shade houses are filled with everything from ferns, white lilies and asparagus plants to monkey’s tail, anthurium and money plants.
The D’Souza’s don’t chase the monkeys away. But after they molested her red and yellow parrot plant, she had to do something. That was when the shade houses were built.

Tessa is a member of the Horticulture Society, but it was just four years ago that she joined the Orchid Society and started growing orchids with Joe’s help. He added sprinkler systems in the shade houses so that during the hot weather, her plants would continue to flourish.

As you make your way along the narrow foot paths that Joe paved with Marula stones, one can’t help feeling the affection the D’Souza’s have for their garden. But one must also stand in awe of Mother Nature’s infinite variety of living things, some of which Tessa has brought home from those roadside nurseries. That includes the Stag Horns, Chinese Lanterns, Buddha bamboo and pink Floribunda roses. Then too, her garden attracts so many chameleons, squirrels, crows and weaver birds who have moved in to make the D’Souza’s garden a busy place.

Tessa insists on introducing visitors to the two gentlemen who help her keep the garden immaculate and the plants looking ever-green, lush and beautiful. Aggrey and Simon are gardeners who work full-time at the D’Souza’s.

Joe wouldn’t have it any other way since he agrees the garden is an elegant reflection of Nature’s infinite creativity. But equally, he says to keep it that way, “It’s a full-time job!”










TRAUMA AND HEALING IN MATCHSTICK MEN



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 August 2019)

Trauma isn’t an easy topic to talk about, especially as it invariably comes from an intensely felt experience.
Martin Kigondu chose to tackle two of the most traumatic times in Kenya’s recent past in his play, ‘Matchstick men’, which Prevail Arts staged last weekend at Kenya Cultural Centre.
Bilal Mwaura and Emmanuel Mulili performed this emotional two-hander at Kenya National Theatre before. But as it was during a cultural festival, it wasn’t the best time to watch a play grappling with how the violent events of 1982 and 2008 impacted the lives of two grown men.
Both Seth and Fadhili are participants in the so-called Matchstick Program. Coincidentally, they are technically related since Fadhili lived with Seth’s sister Lydia for a time and had a child who is now eight.
Yet despite our not knowing the backstory of the program until late in the play, we finally learn there’s nothing coincidental about their both being in it. Their therapy sessions were set up by Fadhili to help his brother-in-law confront his demons.
They include the ‘blood, pangas and guns” that refer to Seth’s experience during 2008 post-election violence when he witnessed the bloody murder of his mother and Lydia. They also include his years growing up with an abusive father who’d been tortured following the 1982 coup attempt to topple the Moi government.
Yet as disturbed as Seth apparently is, Fadhili has his own demons. His relate to losing custody of his child after Lydia and he split up. He wants to adopt his little girl, but her only living relation who can approve the adoption is Seth.
So Fadhili sets up these sessions not simply to help Seth. Bottom line, his motive is to bring back Seth to a semblance of sanity so he can sign adoption papers.
It’s a complicated, intensely personal plot that required heart-felt performance by both actors. This is what they both gave. The irony is that Fadhili seems more unstable than Seth who’d been so psychologically wounded that he’d buried his pain deep within his psyche. It takes this final session with Fadhili to bring him back sufficiently to his senses so he can sign.
Yet in the end, neither man is healed of his trauma. Fadhili at least gets what he wants but Seth is only left with reawakened memories of a painful past. Nonetheless, both actors gave outstanding performances.

JESS ATIENO: ETCHINGS AS VISUAL POETRY


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 20 August 2019)

As she bid us farewell for the next two years while she studies art at the influential Chicago School of the Art Institute, Jess Atieno left us with a gift.
Her first solo exhibition at Red Hill Gallery, ‘To stand on a Grain of Wheat’ opened last Sunday, just before she departed for Michelle and Barack Obama’s hometown.
Her timing couldn’t have been better. Her latest collection of delicate etchings was a revelation. 

It’s a show that strikes one with a similar impact as the first solo exhibition that she had back in 2015 entitled ‘Full Frontal’. That one featured women shaped in all sizes and shamelessly bearing their bodies in all their natural glory. It was also a show that marked Jess as being an artist who had a clear and courageous visual voice.
She’s been experimenting with various techniques, multi-media and processes ever since. But her current show seems to suggest that she’s found an artistic medium of expression that’s well suited to give her the freedom to say and do what she wants artistically.
Etching is the new-found technique that Jess encountered while in an art residency at the Hyde Park art Centre a year and a half ago.   That’s the skill she’s been practicing and perfecting ever since, producing among other things, the collection of almost 20 first (or second) edition prints which are up at Red Hill.
Grouped in series of two or three like-minded prints (with a few solo images), all but three have been crafted in the last few months. Those three were created last year after Jess read Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s marvelous multigenerational book, ‘Kintu’.
“I was inspired by the story,” says Jess whose trio of Kintu etchings are the only ones featuring human faces, each of which has eyes that have a penetrating gaze. But even in these three, one can get an inkling of the direction she is heading, which is towards the organic, abstract and evocative.

The remainder of works in her exhibition include meticulously etched prints, which Jess says still reflect her fascination for the human body. Only now, she’s inspired by internal aspects of the bodily form, both the mental and the physical. This is apparently why her prints seem strikingly cellular and organic.
It’s almost as if she’d gazed through an electron microscope and seen scads of cells and platelets, some of which are spherical in form, others oval, others more obtuse. But Jess says she’s never looked through a microscope, although she’s not unfamiliar with anatomical elements of the most miniscule.
Nonetheless, her designs seem almost improvisational. It’s as if she’d been delighted to doodle on Perspex (plexiglass) plates using a needle-like metal ‘pen’ which has given her the means to control her lines and designs with a delicacy which is carefully refined.
Each plate produces no more than three prints. However, in each cluster of three, the first one is striking for its cellular black and white clarity. The second and third etchings are denser, more deeply drawn and detailed.
But there is something in them resembling the first one of the three. That’s because Jess has etched other plates which she then uses to print atop the initial design. The effect is fascinating. One must look deeply into the denser works in order to find the original etching which is now embedded and transformed into a wholly new work of art.
Yet the etching and print-making techniques are not nearly so straight-forward as this. In fact, one can see how they have evolved and subtly morphed as one moves from cluster to cluster.
But the more one looks carefully at Jess’ art, one has to appreciate how varied her etchings are. There is one in particular, entitled ‘Kuliko Maji’ that contains not a single spherical form. Instead, she’s created undulating images that come alive with a vibrancy that begs to be identified not as abstract, but as beautiful African dancers who Jess captures coincidentally on her page.
Then again, the beauty of abstract art is that one can read anything or nothing into it. In the case of ‘Standing on a Grain of Wheat’, at least a portion of Jess’s etchings  seem to emerge from that segment of the human psyche known as the subconscious. It’s the realm often associated with the spiritual; it is also from where the finest poetry derives. So if one can see the poetic in visual art, then Jess’s etchings are pure visual poetry.
  


Monday, 19 August 2019

JANJARUKA: NEW KENYAN WEB SERIES ON YOUTUBE



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (19 August 2019)

Nobody feels good about being conned. Yet some Kenyans have mastered the art of the con to such an extent that even ‘smart people’ get into situations where they come up short.
So it pays to ‘wizen up’ or to ‘Janjaruka’ which coincidentally is the title of the newest Web series on YouTube by a Kenyan featuring fellow Kenyans.
Aggie Nyagari has directed and co-produced ‘Janjaruka’ with her partner George Salt who also scripted the 36-episode series.
It was launched last Wednesday at PAWA254, preceded by several videos featuring local ‘celebrities’ telling their own ‘Con Story’, most of which are unbelievable but true.
For instance, Nice Githinji is one of those public faces, best known for her acting roles on film, TV and stage. But Nice is not acting in her ‘Con story’ since she was asked by Aggie to explain what and how she actually got conned.
Fortunately, Nice and all the others who agreed with Aggie to share their stories on YouTube, were shameless about confessing their naivete!
Among those shameless ones are Pascal Tokodi, Jua Cali, Eric Wainaina and Leonard ‘Mambo’ Mbotela among others.
“We decided to create ‘The Con Story’ as a way of both promoting ‘Janjaruka’ and also starting a conversation about what it means to be conned,” says Aggie.
That conversation is important, says her partner George, “because we don’t want to reach a point where conning is normalized and accepted as a matter of course.”
He went further to note that today, we don’t necessarily see the linkage between ‘the hustle’, the con and corruption. But it’s there, he adds. He hopes their web series will make those connections clearer as conning is explored more deeply in their series.
“Janjaruka is actually a fictionalized account of something that happened to me that I wanted to make a film about,” says Aggie.
But the series isn’t simply about what happened to her. It also follows up on what might transpire if the person conned actually followed up and pursued the conman or con-woman to the bitter end.
The story is broken up into 36 episodes, each of which is six to nine minutes. The first five were released last week on YouTube simultaneously with the launch at PAWA254.
The series stars Rahma Nawiri as Sasha the one (playing the Aggie character) who is originally conned by a woman named Mrs Mwanyiki (Mary Gacheri). She’s assisted in her ploy by her ‘driver’ (Kamau wa Ndungu) who participates in Mwanyiki’s intricate and well-calculated plot.
Sasha isn’t a fool. But she seriously wanted an apartment in Hurlingham. But once her dreams are shattered, she retells her story to several friends, including Kelly (Lulu Wilson), Johnny (Charlie Karumi) and Patrick (Blessing Lung’aho). Together they decide to report the crime to police.
In the process, they are conned again. So the rest of the series involves a load of sleuthing. It turns into amateur detective work that takes them over their heads. But in the meantime, the series features some outstanding local actors including Bilal Wanjau playing the Chief of Police, Officer Ruto.
And because Aggie has been directing and editing local TV series for the past few years, including several that she and George produced for Mnet and Africa Magic (like ‘Flowers and Bricks’, ‘All in a day’ and ‘Love or die’), she also managed to get the award-winning filmmaker Likarion Wainaina to do cinematography for the series.
The sixth through 36th episodes will start airing again August 27th on YouTube, with two new episodes coming online every Tuesday after that.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

SAUMU'S PLAY SET IN KIBERA PREMIERES AT CULTURAL CENTRE



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 14 August 2019)

Saumu Kombo is a young poet and playwright who has teamed up with the Liquid Theatre Company on several occasions. Most recently, Liquid staged her drama ‘Before Dawn’ last weekend at Kenya Cultural Centre.
The premise of her play is intriguing. The story is set in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, where we see there’s a style of sectoral self-government in which Lady Tajiri (Lisa Gitu) has been selected to serve as the locals’ ‘protector’. She’s the activist-spokesperson who stands up for the ‘hood’ whenever outside forces try to interfere with people’s everyday lives.
Her close friend Sue (Irene Mungai) is a courageous political blogger who works closely with Lady T. She’s the one who keeps her ear to the ground and publicizes assorted schemes and scams that politicians and thieves prefer to keep concealed.
One scheme that Sue apparently is getting ready to disclose is an illegal eviction plot that two professionals who grew up in the hood, have hatched. Pilo (Pethuel Kimawachi), who is now a lawyer and brother of Lady T, and Situma (Anthony Mutuku), an engineer who master-minds the scheme to evict 500 Kibera residents.
It’s Lady T’s security guard husband Tajiri (Kelvin Manda) who gets wind of their selfish scam first. It’s also he who nearly gets killed as their way of keeping the eviction plan quiet until it’s too late for anyone, including Lady T, to do anything about it.
It’s a fascinating story as it’s set inside the slum and feels like it could reflect a real-life problem that slum dwellers face all the time. Unfortunately, last Sunday afternoon, the execution of the story was not nearly as clear-cut as this.
For one thing, we needed more character-development. Too much seemed to be assumed. Too many of people’s back stories weren’t disclosed so that we didn’t understand the motivation for why some of the characters did what they did.
This is especially true for Lady T who is a pivotal character in the play. And yet we didn’t have a very clear sense of what exactly was her relationship to her community. That would have been helpful in understanding the way the story ends, especially to understand why she is blamed for the eviction notice and for the disappearance of her friend Sue.
I don’t want to be a spoiler, but I found the ending most confusing.  The letter she writes to Tajiri before she gets blamed for everything and thus, gets bumped off by a mob of angry neighbors, didn’t quite make sense.  For it seems to have been written either from the grave or beforehand, in anticipation of the bad things she somehow knows are bound to come.
What is clear is that the letter is meant to be read by Tajiri after the two crooks get nabbed and the eviction averted. But how did she know she would be ‘sacrificed’ so that the ‘greater good’ would be achieved? How did she know her friend Sue was in danger for apparently disclosing the eviction plot in her blog. That is a whole other anomaly.
For while the play allows us to see how cruel and desperate the two crooks are, even to the point of torturing Tajiri, we cannot easily understand why Lady T has to assault her best friend, then drags her to an undisclosed destination.
It is easier to understand why Okocha (Simon Kimani) the neighborhood plumber, is upset with Lady T. He assumes, as do we, that Sue has died at the hand of her supposed friend. He has no qualms carrying her kicking out to meet the mob. What he doesn’t know (nor do we) is that Lady T knocked her best friend unconscious, not to kill her but supposedly to protect her. Her reasoning apparently was that if the crooks believed she was dead, she wouldn’t be in danger from them.
All these anomalies can be easily fixed. But one more reason it might be good to do so is the ending when Lady T returns to the stage to give voice to the words Tajiri is reading in her letter. This is the first time we get a clear idea of who the Lady really is. But it’s a little late.
One thing that works well in ‘Before Dawn’ is making the stage into a sort of ‘split screen’, with one side the Tajiri home, the other the office of the schemers.  That way, the set changes were snappy and the story flowed.




MULWA’S MORALITY PLAY BROUGHT BACK AFTER 30 YEARS


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 14 August 2019)

David Mulwa wrote ‘Redemption’ for NCCK back in 1989. We haven’t seen it staged since, until last week at Kenya Cultural Centre when Kenyatta University students performed a version of it under the direction of Dr Emmanuel Shikuku.
By honoring one of Kenya’s greatest playwright in this way, Shikuku and his lively cast were also paying tribute to one of the country’s greatest actors and KU professors.
The play itself was considered quite radical at the time as Mulwa dared to expose the corruption, contradictions and petty conflicts afflicting the church. And while the institution doesn’t play as dominant a social role as it did back then, the story itself is beautifully crafted. It revolves around three church leaders, one the old ‘fire-and-brimstone’ model (Mark Maina) who’s being cast aside for a younger, more empathetic model, Martin (Carl Gordon Mbaje) and the third a cunny conman, Archbishop (AB) Muthemba (Brian Otieno) who’s built his church with foreign funding and deceit.
The two older clerics have offspring whose Romeo-Juliet styled courting gets soured by the Archbishop’s son taking advantage of the innocent Rebecca (Annita Nabakka). The irony is that the AB also impregnated a young woman, Millicent who was innocent and already engaged to a good man, Kitaka (Dancan Jalang’a) who turned into the town drunk, once his girl ends up marrying the con.
To complicate matters more, AB is busy swindling land from his flock, including Kitaka who’s persuaded by Pastor Martin not to sell it.  Coincidentally, because he’s treated compassionately by Martin, Kitaka sobers up and the tide turns. AB gets nabbed for larceny, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ make up and even Millie and Kitaka’s future looks promising.
It’s a brilliant drama, but there were a few flaws in its execution. For one, the story should have been cut as it ran over three hours. The opening scene could have been slashed, also the melodrama of Rebecca’s dad whose self-pity was too much. But what probably should have been either omitted altogether or reduced were the dance numbers. For however nimble, enthusiastic and well-choreographed were the dancers, they interrupted the dramatic tension and seemed to work at cross-purposes with the storyline.
There was no shortage of excellent acting, however, especially the Archbishop, Kitaka, Rebecca and others. Also, the dancing was beautiful but it wasn’t integral to the story which was powerful enough to stand on its own as a morality play.


Sunday, 11 August 2019

RED JOAN: COULD AN AGING GRANNY BE A SPY?


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 31 August 2019)

‘Red Joan’ (2019) is a film that pivots between two eras and has been described as everything from a spy thriller, a ‘misplaced’ love story and an anti-war drama. But for me, the draw to watch this Trevor Nunn drama was the leading lady, Judi Dench.
At age 85, one would imagine that Dame Judi retired from making movies a long time ago. Yet her acting chops are so acclaimed that one never wants to miss anything that she is in, be it a film, TV series or stage performance.
She has done it all and won countless awards in the process. Her career with the Royal Shakespeare Company meant that she starred as everyone from Ophelia (her break-out role) to Lady MacBeth. She’s played royalty like Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth 1. But she is possibly best known here for her performance in the James Bond film where she played ‘M’, Bond’s boss.
In ‘Red Joan’ the film begins in a sleepy London suburb but quickly shifts as MI5 rolls up to Joan Stanley’s door and arrests her for treason. She certainly looks like a sweet, harmless little old lady. But the film is based on the true story of Kremlin spy Melita Norwood who gets nabbed for espionage late in her life.
Through a series of flashbacks, we meet the young beautiful Joan (Sophie Cookson) who is a brilliant physics student at University of Cambridge. She gets radicalized after a female classmate invites her to an anti-(second world) war meeting.
She’s initially an innocent amidst a sea of Soviet sympathizers, but she falls for Leo (Tom Hughes) who’s deeply committed to the Soviet’s obtaining nuclear secrets that the Americans and now the British already have.
At the outset, one can’t be assured that Joan is actually the spy being sought, especially as she (or he) is the one who divulged the secret of making a nuclear bomb to the Russians.
Joan is clearly a loyal Brit who genuinely claims her innocence from the charges. However, as the flashbacks unfold, so does World War 2. And once the Americans drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she’s aghast at the ease with which the bomb could be dropped and thousands of innocent lives lost.
Only then does it make sense to her that another world war can only be averted if both sides of the post-WW2 divide are at par. Her reasoning being that if both sides have the bomb, they will each be deterred from launching another nuclear attack.
Whether that rationale can save her from a life-sentence for betraying her country or not isn’t revealed in the film. Nor is the outcome of her relationship with Leo whose Jewish-CP background leads him to relocate outside the UK.
Only the State doesn’t underestimate the intentionality of this woman who actually gave away highly classified secrets out of her sense of principle. But to the end, she believes she averted World War 3, and who knows. Maybe she did.

Friday, 9 August 2019

RAILWAY GROUNDS A HAVEN FOR LOCAL ARTISTS


                         
                            Patrick Mukabi, the Museum's master mentor takes his art all over the country and the world

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 9 August 2019)

The Railway Museum used to be the place to go to learn about that important element in Kenyan history, the establishment of the so-called Lunatic Express that went all the way from Mombasa to Kampala, passing through Nairobi.
But nowadays, the best reason to go to the Railway Museum is to discover what’s happening among a myriad of young Kenyan artists and some not so young. It started several years back when Remy Musindi got together with two other Kenyan artists, Frederick Mbugua and Evanson Kangethe, to establish the Nairobi Railways Museum Art Gallery. That lasted from 2012 to 2015. By then, several other artists, among them Moses Nyawanda , Peter Ndirangu, Samuel Githinji, Lia Berhane and Stephen Njenga among others had found space across the way from the Museum and set up the Railway Art Studio.

But once the Museum Gallery was free, coincidentally Patrick Mukabi had decided to move out of The GoDown Art Centre where he’d been based since it first started in the early 2000s. That is how he ended up moving into the Gallery space and setting up Dust Depo Art Studio.
                                                                                              Mukabi at work

From the beginning, Patrick was not alone. He had been mentoring young aspiring artists at the GoDown, many of whom chose to also shift and stick with him. Quite a few of them have learned what they needed from him and moved on to establish themselves in their own right. Among them are artists like Nadia Wamunyu who is now based at Kobo Trust, Mike Kyalo who now paints in South B at the Mukuru Art Club, Joan Otieno who works at Kariobangi North at Warembo Wasanii which she founded and Eric ‘Stickky’ Muriithi who is still with Patrick at Dust Depo but also operates independently.
                                           Eric 'Stickky' Muriithi has been with Mukabi at Museum for some time

Two graffiti artists who were based with Patrick for a time subsequently teamed up with another local artist, and moved just behind the Museum where they set up their own studio inside a railway car. Kenneth Otieno, aka KayMist and Bebeto Ochieng, aka Thufu were the two artists who met at Dust Depo and found they were kindred spirits artistically. Then they met Brian Musasia, aka Msale and the threesome became known as BSQ, short for Bomb Squad.
                       BSQ graffiti artists also got their start at Dust Depo. Now they have their own train car studio

The great thing about Mukabi as a mentor is that he never holds on to artists who have benefited by his guidance. Nor does he claim accolades for influencing so many artists’ life opportunities. It is clear however that countless Kenyan artists who have been mentored by him have become both artistically and financially self-sufficient. In other words, Patrick, who is also known as Baba Supaa to TV fans who used to watch his children’s art classes on the ‘Known Zone’, is a born ‘mwalimu’ teacher.
Speaking to him recently at Dust Depo, Patrick says he currently has about 20 artists regularly working there. But in all, including those who come and go, depending on their classes and other responsibilities, he has around 50 mentees or students whom he shepherds into the world of fine art.
                                      Nadia Wamunyu is also a former mentee of Mukabi. This is her Lamu donkey

In fact, his teaching style is so genial and effortless that Patrick is invited to many schools and art centres, both locally and abroad, to teach. “I have been to around 20 countries where I have taught and also exhibited,” says Patrick. In Kenya he’s taught everywhere from refugee camps to schools like Brook house, Braeburn and Hillcrest to Hotels like Dusit D2 and Malls like the Hub.
One has to wonder when he finds time to do his own art since he gives so much of his to others. “I usually paint early in the morning or late at night,” he says in his understated style.
He works in a wide range of media, from charcoal and ink to acrylic paint on canvas and paper collage. Best known for his portraits of beautiful buxom market women, he also is known for his anatomical accuracy as witnessed in his PEV series of nude warriors entitled ‘Siasa mbaya Maisha mbaya.’
Patrick is also among the first Kenyan artists to paint a series of clad-less women whom he had advertised for. He had invited women of ample sizes who felt comfortable being painted in the nude to contact him. A number did and those portraits are remarkable in their own right. But they were sadly censored from being shown at 
Nairobi National Museum’s Creativity Gallery, an event that stunned many observers who did not think censorship of art was appropriate or fair.
                                                      Mukabi makes art all over the town, country and world



Thursday, 8 August 2019

AFR0-SURREALISM AT ALLIANCE FRANCAISE



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 8 August 2019)

‘Kesho Kenya’, the exhibition of paintings and photography at Alliance Francaise that opened early this week, is much more than a stroll down memory lane.
The poster for the show subtitled it ‘Then and now’, referring to a more relevant theme since it suggests the artworks in this show are more dynamic, more about a transition between what came before and where we are today.
In fact, the artworks of all eight artists represented at AF go way beyond being nostalgic reflections of pre-colonial times. The concepts underlying the show as defined by Karakana, the curators of the exhibition, Celestine Wamiru and Stephen Nderitu, are grounded in issues of African identity and culture.
According to Celeste, (who is Kenya’s first female editorial cartoonist), issues of “African spiritualism, Afro-Futurism and Africa’s lost history” are the central themes that have fueled these artists’ imagination.
For Chela Cherwon, Native Nairobi, Blaine29, Ango Makau, and Saka arts painting was the medium they chose to use to explore the Karakana themes. Meanwhile, Sogallo, Ian Kiplimo and James Gikonyo chose photography as their main medium for participation in ‘Kesho Kenya’.
But it was virtually inevitable that these eight millennials would focus more on the present and future than on the past. In fact, Afro-futurism which is closely correlated to Afro-surrealism is the dominant concept that seems to run through the exhibition. Not that Afro-futurism can’t also embrace the past and the present. But the eight clearly didn’t feel confined by a finite sense of time. Instead, there seems to be more implicit attention given to ‘African spiritualism’ and an underlying current of creativity that is African.
Nonetheless, there are hints of past cultural practices in Chela’s choice to paint people’s faces in a sort of scarified style, the allusion being to the scarification that some pre-colonial communities practiced. People stood in line at the exhibition’s opening night for a chance to be ‘scarified’ (with washable body paint) at the hand of Chela.
Native’s painting of a traditional ‘Medicine woman’ pays tribute to the Suri people of Ethiopia who blended reverence for soul and the soil, including the forest plants and flowers that historically were said to have healing power.
Blaine29’s colourful portraits also seem to be about traditional medicine men. And yet her use of color feels almost psychedelic; and one of her men’s eyes look like they’ve got sharpened daggers exploding from their eyes. If that doesn’t sound ‘African surreal’, I don’t know where it can be classified.
Many of the artworks in ‘Kesho Kenya’ reflect this kind of eclectic  mix of past, present and futuristic themes. For instance, photographer James Gikonyo’s ‘Sage’ does what a few of the other artists do: allude to the past, using technology of the present to create an image that is at once futuristic and surreal. Sage is draped in a leopard cape, wearing an ‘Afro’ hairstyle and holding an orb that connects her with electrified super-power that enables her to tune into unfathomable frequencies and knowledge. The electrified super-power is magnified in her eyes and is also visible on her arm where she has a holographic man in miniature (from who-knows-where) standing prepared to communicate.
All the photographers are inclined to create similarly surrealistic images. For instance, Ian Kiplimo has created several portraits of beautiful young people – both women and men -- covered in body art and coiffed in well-wrapped African textiles. Meanwhile, along the same wall, Gikonyo, working with Sogallo came up with an ‘Ubuntu’ portrait of a half-naked (from the waist up) warrior surrounded by many dismembered hands, all reaching out to touch the man. It’s an unsettling (photoshopped) image, but it’s also got a hypnotic effect.
Sogallo has also brought several intricate line drawings to the show. One, called ‘Genesis’, is dense with intricate lines but also filled with haunting African masks, the kind that inspired Western modern artists like Picasso, Matisse and Braque.
Sogallo’s deftly delineated map of Africa is also an affirmation of what this show represents. So does Chela’s painting called ‘African Essence’, a work that reveals the crux of what Karakana apparently wanted to encourage, which is art that also expresses appreciation of what Celeste calls ‘African spiritualism’.
Finally, one way that spirituality is expressed in this show is through the music that Joseph ‘Ango’ Makau honors in his paintings of musical instruments. But even these have a semi-abstract style that borders on the surreal.



Tuesday, 6 August 2019

NAIROBI’S INSATIABLE MARKET FOR POTTED PLANTS

                                             Celosia plumesa are among the potted flowers sold by Zoya at EZ Plants

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted August 6, 2019)

During all her days studying marketing and finance in Australia, Zoya Virjee never dreamed she’d one day be known as the ‘potted plant lady’. Nor did she plan to start up her own company specializing in potted flowers and herbs.
But it happened! Zoya launched EZ Plants early this year, and already, the business has blossomed. She started off as a one-woman venture last March, but already she delivers thousands of potted plants every week all over Nairobi. “We also will be delivering to Tigoni and Limuru soon,” says the woman who didn’t grow up with a fetish for flowers or herbs.
“But ever since I got my first job, working with a ‘rose propagation’ firm, I’ve come to love being around flowers and visiting flower farms,” says this young entrepreneur who heads to Naivasha at least once a week to place her orders with her former boss, Plantech Kenya Ltd., the gigantic nursery from which she gets virtually all the flowers and herbs that she sells.
“It’s important that I go there since there are some orders I have to place well in advance,” says Zoya, noting that an herb like mint has to be ordered six weeks in advance. “The seeds have to be sown; then three weeks must pass before the seedling can be transplanted. After that, it takes another three weeks before the plant is large enough to be sold,” she adds.
Zoya’s knowledge of the plant field has grown exponentially since that first job where they grew seedlings for farms that export roses abroad. “Initially, I had just been looking for a job. But then, once I got it and visited the farms we’d send our seedlings to [in Naivasha, Timau and Eldoret], I got seriously interested in plants.”
Moving over to the ‘mother company’ of the rose ‘propagators’, (Solo Plants Kenya) in 2015, she quickly got moved up the ladder to the point where her bosses could see she was ready for a new challenge. There seemed to be a new niche market in potted plants. Would she want to test it out?
“Before I started selling potted herbs, you could buy herbs in bunches, but not in pots,” observes Zoya who relished the challenge and took up it straight away.
Having her target market in mind, Zoya started out at the Farmers Market in Karen. Now she goes to all the farmers markets in Nairobi as well as to the main malls, from The Hub, Two Rivers, Galleria and Junction to Sarit Centre, Village Market, Diamond Plaza and TRM.
“We now supply florists, restaurants, schools, super markets and annual fairs as well as pop up exhibitions, landscape gardeners, flower shows and individuals with home gardens,” says EZ Plants’ owner who started out as a one-woman shop but soon had to train several ladies to help her meet the needs of an insatiable market in potted plants.
Early on, she was asked if she did home deliveries. She didn’t at the time, but quickly said yes, and has been doing it ever since. That’s how she came to bring in thousands of potted herbs and flowers from Naivasha to Nairobi at least three times a week. “Initially, I used to just put the plants in the back of my car and make the deliveries myself. But now the plants are delivered either by pick-up, Probox or Van.
The range of plants that she sells is immense. It includes everything from herbs like basil, mint, oregano, lavender and lemon balm to peppermint, rosemary, wild rocket, chilis and thyme. She also sells lovely flowers such as petunia, portulaca, dahlia, zinnia, vinca and perhaps most popular of all, the violas which are edible flowers.
“The violas come in all colors and are used in everything from salads and drinks to decorating cakes,” says Zoya.
Asked how she has managed to grow her business so fast she admits she hardly sleeps and works seven days a week. But what her business has also proved is the power of social media to help build a business.
“I post at least twice a day on Instagram and maybe twice a week on Facebook,” says the lady who has found that social media is a more powerful marketing tool than word-of-mouth or even mainstream media. And having a cell phone that beeps every time someone comments on her posts, Zoya’s a case and point illustrating how technology and social media have helped her harvest a bountiful business.




Sunday, 4 August 2019

RADIO COMES TO TV IN NEW SERIES

                                                                LIFE FM DJ Lorna (Mkamzee Mtawale)

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 4 August 2019)

LIFE FM is the radio station that we may soon be watching. It’s still in its final phase of development, but its future looks bright.
Nonetheless, TV viewers can be a fickle crowd and now that more and more Kenyans are making films and sit-coms, there’s increased competition for viewers’ eyeballs.
But given the pilot already has a star-studded cast, a super cinematographer, diligent director and script writers seeped in imaginative ideas peppered with spicy insights into people’s private lives, the future looks promising.
It’s not quite so bright for Lorna, played by Mkamzee Mtalewa, the dead-of-night DJ who’s got her call-in advice program on LIFE FM. She’s a trained psychologist who has wise ideas for all her callers, however pained or problematic their situations are. But she’s not so great with her own relationships. That includes her number one man, played by Brian Ogola.
That will be a fascinating couple to watch, since we just saw them in two very different roles in ‘Lusala’, a film that showed off both their acting chops and made us tell all our friends they had to see it since it is bound to be winning awards in the near future.
But in the first episode of LIFE FM, the phone caller played by Brenda Wairimu (who is also a film star for her leading role in ‘Subira’) calls herself Wonder Woman in order to cloak her true identity. Her issue is domestic abuse by her spouse, played by Martin Githinji who just came off the Kenya National Theatre stage where he played yet another bad guy in ‘Sarafina’.
Both Martin and Mkamzee had leading roles in Sarafina which, according to the musical’s director Stuart Nash, will be coming back to KNT in October at the insistence of the Minister of Culture and the Arts, Dr Amina Mohamed.
                                                                   Stuart Nash with script writer Philip Kipele

Stuart also has a significant hand in LIFE FM since he’s both producing and directing it. He’s also the one who got Kenyan cinematographer Nathan Prior to come on board and film the first episode of the series. That was no small feat as Nathan is a man in demand. He just completed filming ‘The Great Kenyan Bake Off’ which is a take-off on the original British show that’s been picked up and cloned in countries all over the world.
Stuart also called in Philip Kipele and Davina Leonard to script write the series.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

RICHARD KIMATHI EXPOSES MILLENNIALS’ DISILLUSIONMENT WITH THEIR LOT

                                                                         Confusing Sky by Richard Kimathi

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 1st August 2019 to SN&BD)

Richard Kimathi’s exhibition of paintings at One Off Gallery entitled ‘Wounds’ is soon to close. It is well worth making a trip out to Rosslyn to see it before it does.
‘Wounds’ comes on the heels of another one-man show, ‘Bare Knuckle’, that Kimathi, one of Kenya’s post prominent painters, had last year at One Off which also featured rows of little men of nondescript identities. They were and still are figures whose nationalities, color, creed and ideology cannot be easily specified.
In ‘Wounds’, they might be millennials. What is definitely distinguishable about them is that they all look sad, befuddled, even wounded, both physically and psychologically. A few of their wounds are visible ‘as in ‘Gentle Talk’ where one seems to have a deformed hand, and in ‘Confusing Sky’, another is missing an arm.
                                                                                         Richard Kimathi

 In ‘Conversation IV’ one man seems to have a wound in his heart. And in ‘A Rosy Cheek’, the man’s wound looks self-inflicted since he seems to be punching himself.
To suggest Kimathi is passing a powerful message about the dismal state of Kenyans’ collective psyche isn’t difficult to surmise, especially as none of his men look affluent, like the vast majority of Kenyans. None look comfortable with their lot in life. Instead, they look like ordinary everyday people whose discomfort can be seen, and even felt.
Two of the most disturbing paintings in the show are filled with rows of three-dimensional cut-out canvas characters who seem to be dangling from the variegated pastel and grey painted background. Their dangling is ominous in that it suggests their lives could be hanging by a thread. Their mental state of distress could have led to a hopelessness that ended in suicide.

In fact, in Kenya today suicide is a problem, especially among youth who can’t see what future lay ahead. Many are jobless, penniless and struggling to find means of surviving. It’s a sorry story, but Kimathi tells it viscerally and in a way that can stir one’s soul. His paintings are revelatory in that he identifies deep seeded feelings of disillusionment and anomy among Kenyans that hardly gets discussed in public. Thus, his show is a sort of invitation to open up and talk about the angst. Let’s open up and try to find the means to change the narrative. Let’s learn how ‘well-ness’ can supersede the wounds and positively transform people’s lives and thus, the society.
In one painting in particular, Kimathi hints the problem may have political implications. ‘Inked’ is a piece in which all four guys are showing off their pinky, the little finger that gets inked after you vote. Every one of the four has an open wound. Everyone looks sober and possibly disillusioned with the vacuous consequences of their vote. They voted yet nothing changed.

Kimathi’s art often speaks for the forgotten man. Giving a visual voice to the voiceless in ‘Wounds’, his men look like they’re in pain, but their pain is the silent type. One might see them on a Nairobi street and never know they were hungry, jobless and dying to see a way forward that might fulfill a fraction of their dreams. It’s Kimathi who paints their portraits with strokes of empathy as well as acrylic paint.
Yet one wouldn’t call Kimathi’s painting realistic. They have a more surreal effect, especially as his men (plus one polkadot-dressed woman) all seem to be floating on a blue-grey dreamlike fog that points to nowhere. In any case, what the artist has done is visually air the angst of millions of young Kenyans who deserve a better deal in this life.


Wednesday, 31 July 2019

THEATRE IN ABUNDANCE THE REST OF 2019


                                                          A scene from Heartstrings' recent play; it's now doing 'Double Trouble'

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 31 July 2019)

While Heartstrings’ ‘Double Trouble’ runs this weekend at Nairobi Cinema and the ‘improv’ team of ‘Because you said so’ has a show next Saturday, 10th August, at The Junction, there’s lots happening on the horizon in Kenyan theatre.
Kenyan writers, directors and producers have gotten in gear, preparing shows for now as well as the rest of this year and next.
In the immediate, next Wednesday, 7th August, Kenyatta University’s Dr Emmanuel Shikuku has revived David Mulwa’s classic script, ‘Redemption’. It will only be staged for one day, at 3pm and 6pm at Kenya Cultural Centre’s Ukumbi Mdogo.
                                                       A scene from an earlier Fanaka Arts Kikuyu comedy

Kikuyu theatre is also alive and well as Fanaka Arts Theatre is staging ‘Hihinya Ihuha’ the following weekend, from 9th August at Alliance Francaise. And the weekend after that, on Friday, 16th August, Prevail Arts Company will revive Martin Kigondu’s ‘Matchstick Men’ also at Ukumbi Mdogo.

                                                Bilal Mwaura (R) will costar in Martin Kigondu's Matchstick Men

As exciting as all this upcoming activity is, what may be the theatrical event of the year is Hearts of Art’s original creation of ‘Wangari Maathai the Musical.’ It certainly must be one of the more ambitious projects that HOA’s founder and playwright Walter Sitati has embarked on. But he has also received lots of support both from his theatre company and Gilbert Lukalia who Sitati says came up with the bright idea first.
“I had actually been thinking about such a project, but when Gilbert brought it up, I knew we had to do it,” says Sitati who is responsible for virtually all the scripts that Hearts of Art has produced since he formed the company shortly after completing a degree from Moi University.
                                                 Gilbert Lukalia will direct 'Wangari Maathai' the Musical

Gilbert is directing the show. But as it’s scheduled to open in November, he and Walter are still in the process of casting. In any case, this is a show to highly anticipate.
The other amazing news comes on the heels of ‘Sarafina’s finale last Sunday night. At the insistence of the Minister of Culture, Dr. Amina Mohamed, Nairobi Performing Arts Studio is bringing back the musical! The earliest booking Sarafina’s producer-director Stuart Nash could get at KNT is 4th-6th October.
     Minister of Culture, Amb. Amina Mohamed (R) insisted Sarafina be restaged after watching it the last night of its run at KNT. It will happen first weekend in Octover. (L) Artist Geraldine Robarts.

So be prepared to get tickets early since many were turned away last Sunday. They are likely to be first in line.
Finally, NPAS also plans to put on Nairobi Half-Life and Lion King early next year. And this October, NPAS brings ‘Blood Brothers the Musical’ to University of Nairobi.
  '                    Wangari Maathai the Musical' is being scripted by Walter Sitati (L) and directed by Gilbert Lukalia (R)