Wednesday, 30 January 2019


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 13, 2018)

You can spot a Joseph Cartoon painting anywhere this industrious Banana Hill artist is exhibiting his art. Currently, that is at the Red Hill Gallery where his one-man show spans decades of his paintings.
Cartoon’s distinctive style is colorful, flamboyant and filled with a dizzying array of designs. He’s got everything from polka dots, strips and plaids to patterns that are geometric, floral and checkered in his art. Often, he will pour many of those shapes and designs into a single painting with each pattern painted in a minimum of two colors.
And while there might seem to be a sameness to Cartoon’s style of decorative painting, if one looks closely, you will see that every artwork is different. The patterns, colors and shapes are also distinct.
What is the same in his art is that Cartoon rarely if ever lets go of the image of rural women tightly integrated into a single work. His village women’s interaction on canvas is practically surreal since they all seem to have a role to play except that all but one tends to be intact. The others are visible as a head, a leg or a hand. It’s a style that provokes a query: are there reasons for their dismemberment or is he just playing around with painting body parts?

Either way, it really doesn’t matter since one appreciates Cartoon for the increasing complexity of his work. His early works, which Hellmuth Rossler-Musch began collecting back in the 1990s is far less complex (some would say ‘busy’) than the works he is painting now. 
Nearly half the artwork in the Red Hill Gallery show are early works of Cartoon’s, created when the artist was just starting out. That was when he was still very much a young ‘disciple’ of Shine Tani who at the time was heading the Banana Hill arts studio.
Cartoon arrived at the studio without a day’s experience of painting or drawing. But he got along well with the artists working together at Banana Hill. So well that they gave him the nickname ‘Cartoon’ because he was such a funny young guy. Clearly the name stuck.
Cartoon stayed at the studio long enough to get a fair amount of mentoring from Shine and other artists who were part of Banana Hill artists in those early days, artists like Martin Kamunyu, Joe Friday, John Kimani aka Silver and many others. He got good enough to participate in a number of group shows with them.
But Cartoon is also an adept businessman. So he also got busy developing a wide array of business prospects. In the course of it all, he also won a slew of awards, including a two year art residency in the UK.
Fortunately, Cartoon’s exhibition at Red Hill is up through January so you can come and appreciate the intricacies of his art, especially the close attention he gives to rural women who he clearly esteems or they wouldn’t be the centre of his focus in so much of his art.
And if you happen to arrive at Red Hill right when Cartoon is also there, you are bound to hear illuminating stories about these industrious working women and how at Chairman Mao used to say, “Women hold up half the sky.”


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (30 January 2019)

Rarely does one have a chance to see so much outrageously creative Kenyan theatrical and musical talent in performances staged on a single day.
But that’s exactly what I witnessed last Wednesday afternoon at The Elephant in Lavington. The occasion was the culmination of a fortnight of intense artistic activity under the banner of the Third Edition of the NBO Musical Theatre Initiative Workshop.
And while none of the 15 original musical theatre scripts were completed by Wednesday, from the look of what was performed by each group of core creatives, one could still see electrical sparks fly as artistic energies came alive in every performance given.
As every group was allocated just 15 minutes to perform, one just got a tantalizing taste of musical versions of original scripts by everyone from Mugambi Nthiga, Wacuka Mungai, Bryan Ngartia and John Sibi-Okumu to Aroji Otieno, Sitawa Nambalie, Aleya Kassam, Laura Ekumbo and Anne Moraa to name just a few of the writers. What was beautiful was seeing how well the genius musicians blended with the writers to create a diverse fusion of lyrical styles and sounds.
The musicians included Eric Wainaina and his talented team, Teddy Mwangi, Chris Adwar, Victor Kimeto, Stuart Nash and the incredible tabla drummer Rashab Nandha.  But the women songwriter-singers assembled were equally impressive. They were Barbara ‘Sage’ Ng’eno, Wanja Wohoro, Wacuka Mungai and Lydia Owano Akwabi.
Sitawa Namwalie assembled an exceptional musical team that played both modern and indigenous instruments. They included obokano player Grand Master Maseke, oruti players Pius Shaki Aloyo and Odada Okuto as well as Mike Munene and Manases Waweru.
Then too, the genres being developed were also diverse. They went from children tale (Don’t turn out the Lights), gangster crime (Bandassary and The Escape), biography (Weaver bird: Field Marshall Muthoni and Kabaseke) and autobiography (Zaphan) to corruption run rampant in both church (Three-Ten and DJ Lwanda) and state (Akenya), interracial love (Pani Puri), science fiction (Rambo Bambo Boom) and identity issues (Nairobae and Moonlight) among others.
The most charming performance for me was the enchanting children’s story, ‘Don’t turn out the lights’. It was based on Mwendwa Mbugua’s children’s book, adapted as a stage musical by Mwendwa, Tina Nduba-Banjo and Kanji Mbugua.
The sci-fi fantasy ‘Rambo Bambo Boom’, which was based on Christina Banja’s book was as engaging as it was far-fetched and fantastically funny.
In fact, there were several other semi-serious yet amusing musical scripts by Kenyan creatives making fun of their fellow Kenyans (which is one of the reasons the initiative is so impressive and unprecedented: All the stories are by and about Kenyans!). They included scripts like ‘Pani Puri’ (a black-brown love comedy) and ‘Bandassary’ by Too Early for Birds based on their previous straight play and ‘The Escape’ by Sitawa.
All three scripts are based on serious topics (namely interracial relations and crime). But inevitably, the scriptwriters and musicians are so imaginative they could hardly avoid blending a bit of humor into their storyline and sound.
There were also sobering stories exquisitely told, like ‘Nairobea’ by Aroji Otieno with beautiful music and lyrics by Barbara ‘Sage’ Ng’eno, ‘Moonlight’ by Eric and Wacuka Mungai, ‘Kabaseke’ about the acclaimed Congolese guitarist who’s currently in jail, and John Sibi-Okumu’s ‘Akenya’ about injustices in present-day Kenya, which is scripted by Sibi and scored by his two musical sons, Jacob and Jason who are both abroad.
What’s thrilling to me about this project is that it’s based on the realization that not only do we have brilliant storytellers among us; but Kenyans’ life stories are also exceptional. For instance, the ‘Brazen’ playwrights Aleya, Laura and Anne are devising a script about the Mau Mau’s one female Field Marshall, the marvelous Muthoni Kirimi. Meanwhile, ‘Bandassary’ is based on the lives of notorious Kenyan gangsters Wacucu and Wanugu. And even ‘Three-Ten’ is based on a real life Kenyan pastor who fleeced his flock with a mesmerizing scam that the flock bought. Meanwhile, Elsaphan Njora tells his own story lyrically with musically support from Tim Arinaitwe.
Asking the artists when their productions will be complete, they can only predict that mid-2020 is the probability. But given the progress made during the workshop, several of the shows could be done sooner. One big incentive to artists’ productivity was the presence of dramaturg Roberta Levitow and Professor Fred Carl of New York University’s Graduate Writing Program. Both are professional thespians whose daily encouragement spurred the creatives to give their ‘all’ artistically. And it showed.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (30 January 2019)

Long before Eric Wainaina got involved in setting ‘Tinga Tinga Tales’ to music for the stage, the ‘Dreams in Stereo’/Daima musician was dreaming musical theatre.
It might have started while he was singing and acting at St. Mary’s School. The seed could also have been sown once he joined the a cappella singing group, ‘Five Alive’ in the 1990s. But certainly, once he went to Boston, USA to study song-writing and record-engineering at the world acclaimed Berklee College of Music, Eric must have had an inkling that musical theatre was bound to become a path less travelled that he would eventually traverse.
Proof that he was destined to be Kenya’s version of a writer and composer like Rogers and Hammerstein all in one came out in 2009 when his award-winning musical, ‘Mo Faya’ was staged for record-breaking crowds at the GoDown Art Centre in Nairobi’s Industrial Area. Then when ‘Mo Faya’ was invited to perform in the New York Musical Theatre Festival in September 2009, Eric was sold.
In fact, his starring role as DJ Lwanga in Mo Faya has stuck with him. So much so that he’s been developing another musical around the DJ ever since. Even now, ‘DJ Lwanga’ was one of the musical scripts that Eric shared during the recent Third NBO Musical Theatre Initiative Workshop. It was the one (of 15) musical theatre projects previewed last week that had only one songwriter, lyricist and storyteller, namely Eric.
Otherwise, during the Workshop’s finale performance one discovered that Eric is involved in the original creation of four musicals all at once. There’s DJ Lwanda, the radio DJ from Kwa Maji in Mo Faya. Then there are three more that he’s working on with three different teams.
In the black-brown love story, ‘Pani Puri’ Eric has teamed up with writer Aleya Kassam and composer-tabla drummer Rashab Nandha.
Then, in ‘Moonlight’, he is working with Wacuka Mungai to explore a bit of Nairobi’s musical history by centering their story around the old Starlight Nightclub.
Finally, Eric has teamed up with Mugambi Nthiga and Stuart Nash to develop the true story entitled ‘Three-Ten’ about Pastor Dennis who swindled his flock with a Bible-based scam. ‘Three-Ten’ is a title derived by Dennis from Malachi Chapter three, verse ten.
All four musicals are still in the process of becoming but they could be nearly complete in June when they’ll be showcased again.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (28 January2019)

Few Kenyan artists create anything like what could be called ‘protest art’. Yet Kaloki Nyamai definitely qualifies as one of them. In his just-ended exhibition at Circle Art Gallery entitled ’Mwaki Nginya Evinda Enge’ (Kikamba for ‘The Fire Next Time’), Kaloki like James Baldwin reflects on the tensions and contradictions of his people’s past and present.
In Baldwin’s case, his reflections were specifically on race and the historical legacy of slavery as it’s impacted African Americans’ lives. In Kaloki’s case, his art also explores issues of identity and the historical legacy of, not slavery, but colonialism, including the pre-colonial and post-colonial.

His multimedia art, which has transitioned dramatically from being more figurative and picturesque to becoming conceptual and symbolic, isn’t an easy read. But it isn’t meant to be. Its cryptic, apparently chaotic style is part of what makes it subversive and radical.
For like his beloved grandmother Mutuve who got into trouble for composing and singing songs that were truthful, hard-hitting and inadvertently political, Kaloki’s art explores sensitive issues of power, patriarchy and a post-colonial Kenya that could also be seen as controversial.
Like Mutuve’s music, Kalobi’s art tells stories meant to rouse awareness of what was lost, broken or simply forgotten of Kenya precolonial past. The recurrent symbols used in most of his tapestry-like canvases mainly come from pre-colonial times: like the three-legged stool (a symbolic seat of power), the cow (a symbol of wealth) and sisal string which had immense value in pre-colonial Kamba culture where it was used for making everything from plates and ropes to clothes, mats and other types of home interiors.

Kaloki uses symbols from the past in several ways. First, he uses them to speak to and critique the present. But also he uses them to explore and expose contradictions arising in a culture that has yet to address (leave alone grapple with) the colonial hangovers plaguing our present times.
For instance, in one painting a young woman stands atop a stool, suggestive of her having attained a semblance of power or social equity. Yet the stool is broken, as is the culture, Kaloki implies. Her power is illusory; the status quo still holds.
Similarly, in a work like ‘The Activist’s Daughter’ (Kana Kaa Munenei), it’s the man standing on the stool. And despite his apparently being ‘x-ed’ out of his patriarchal reign, given that a girl holds a large megaphone, he remains standing on the stool, irrespective of the ‘x’, says Kaloki.

Using charcoal, acrylic and spray paints with sisal, wires and string from burnt tires, Kaloki’s white-washed canvases have a three-dimensional effect since he’s stitched a second set of stories in sisal on the other side of every work. By so doing, he says his canvases aren’t meant to serve as wall-hangings. They’re meant to be free-floating so they can be seen from various perspectives.
What’s more, the stitching has special relevance to this multi-talented artist (who’s also worked in film, fashion and interior design) since it signifies his appreciation of his coming from a matriarchal culture (where women usually are the ones who stitch).
It also implies that Kaloki sees some hope for healing the country’s wounded culture, a culture that has yet to deal with the trauma of colonialism and war.

Ultimately, Kaloki’s biggest complaint and protest is against his fellow Kenyans who continue to fawn over the rich and powerful, be they black or white. It’s a sentiment best expressed in a painting of a small man at the bottom of the piece, cheering the Big Man at the top. Kaloki would prefer the little man reclaim his identity and dignity. 


African Twilights: The Vanishing Rituals and Ceremonies of the African Continent
By Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher
Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru (28 January 2019)

Never before have I seriously considered spending Ksh20,000 on a book, even if it combines two volumes in one. But I may have to pay by installments for ‘African Twilight: The Vanishing Rituals and Ceremonies of the African Continent,’ which is being officially launched March 3rd at African Heritage House where it’s co-author-photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher will be in attendance.
Normally, I’d think it an extravagance to buy such a high-priced book, especially such a heavy one as the 872 page tome. But for someone who appreciates African culture and especially African aesthetics, I realize there will never be a more revealing book published about sub-continental ceremonies, rituals, rites of passage and religions than Beckwith and Fisher’s remarkable visual archive of indigenous African cultures.
African Twilight features 93 ceremonies witnessed in 26 countries. What’s more, it recently won the United Nations Award for Excellence in 2018 for its ‘vision and understanding of the role of cultural traditions in the pursuit of world peace.’
Beckwith and Fisher are two women photographers, one originally a painter, the other a jewelry designer, who met right here in Nairobi in 1978. Both had a spirit of adventure, a love of African aesthetics, an empathy and appreciation of the people, and skills which led to their becoming pioneering documentary photographers.
For the last four decades, they have been crisscrossing the continent where they’ve witnessed and photographed incredibly beautiful performance art events. In the process, they’ve recorded Africans’ boundless creativity expressed in their costumes, jewelry, body art (including body painting and scarification), dance rituals and ceremonies. They’ve also produced beautiful books like ‘Africa Adorned’, ‘Nomads of Niger’ and ‘African Ark’.
But since their publishing ‘African Ceremonies’ in 1999, they realized the region was changing so rapidly, they felt compelled to embark on the 15 year project which resulted in ‘African Twilight’. Noting that nearly 50 percent of the ceremonies they recorded in 1999 have either vanished or become ‘unrecognizable,’ the two chose to journey deeper into otherwise inaccessible corners of the region to meet people whose cultures were still intact.
As such, the book succeeds in creating a visual archive of the exceptional diversity, beauty and dignity of African cultural ceremonies ranging from those related to initiation, rites of passage, courtship, and marriage to African kingdoms, spiritual practices and death.
For years, we’ve seen books bemoaning ‘vanishing Africa,’ but Beckwith’s and Fisher’s images are not mournful, voyeuristic or clichéd. Instead, they’ve taken an almost anthropological approach by getting to know their subjects, including the values their ceremonies reflect. So while the book is primarily photographic, the captions are informative, contextual and respectful of what their images signify.
In the book’s introduction, the British-Ghanaian architect, Sir David Adjaye writes of how he shares the photographers’ purpose “to expand and enrich the world’s understanding of the rich cultural tapestry of Africa.” I too appreciate the sentiment.

Blackkklansman, timely reminder that racism's still rampant

Blackkklansman, A Film Review
Directed by Spike Lee

Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru (29 January 2019)

‘BlackkKlansman’ is a damning comedy-drama and critique of the white supremacy and flagrant racism that flared up in America in the 1960s during the heyday of the Black Power movement.
Veteran African American filmmaker Spike Lee has been making critically-acclaimed movies that expose, attack and undermine the racist underpinnings of American society since the 1980s. But ‘Blackkklansman’ is the first to be nominated for Best Picture by the American Academy Awards, alongside the Kenyan favorite ‘Black Panther’ (which just won Best Film at the SAG Awards).
The film is based on the remarkable true story of Ron Stallworth who’s the first Black man to ‘join’, or rather infiltrate the openly racist Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth (John David Washington) is also the first Black admitted to the Colorado Springs police force.
Additionally, he is the one who devises the dicey and daring infiltration scheme, assisted by his fellow officer, Flip Zimmer (Adam Driver) who is white. With his impeccably ‘white’ American accent, Ron makes phone contacts with Klan top dogs, including Grand Wizard David Duke, whom he convinces he is just as rabidly racist as they are. Zimmer is his stand-in whenever Stallworth’s presence is required. The difference between them is nearly detected by the Klan, not because of color but because Zimmer isn’t as passionate about the work as is Ron. But once Ron reminds him that the Klan hates Jews like Zimmer as much as they do Blacks, he gets the hang of his part.
Ron’s real complication comes when he’s told to infiltrate a Black Power rally. There he meets a beautiful Black woman leader named Patricia (Laura Harrier) who detects he doesn’t have the same revolutionary zeal as she has. Nonetheless, their feelings blossom and Ron comes to appreciate her militancy. When finally he confesses he’s not a radical but a cop, their relationship nearly goes bust. But he manages to explain that they’re both out to achieve the same end, only using different means to get to where racism gets exposed and eradicated for good.
There are hair-raising moments in the film, given the KKK is historically renowned for lynching black men and burning down Black churches. If they had discovered the ruse that Stallworth had devised and Zimmer had carried out, their fate at the hand of such a violent and racist group could have easily led to their demise.
After all, Stallworth’s real identity could have easily been discovered, given he was the only Black officer and detective on the local police force. Yet he and Zimmer managed to get onto a fast-track to the top of the KKK due to Ron’s mastery of racist rhetoric and his passionate portrayal of a white supremacist.
One reason ‘Blackkklansman’ has been so well received this year is because the theme resonates with an American public that is witnessing a revival of white supremacy against groups like Black Lives Matter, a 21st century remake of Black Power in the 1960s.

Monday, 28 January 2019


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (28 January 2019) with photo assistance from Donnae Belle
                                         Magical gate of entry into Nani's 'glass menagerie' . photo by Donnae Belle

Tennessee Williams wrote ‘The Glass Menagerie’, but I find it’s also an apt title for what I experienced on my recent travels to Kitengela Glass Workshop and Art Centre.
By now, Nani Croze’s original experiment bringing ‘jua kali’ hand-blown glass works to Kenya is renowned, both locally and globally. (She’s featured in the current issue of African Forbes’ new Women’s edition.)

She started making glass art in 1979 after having established herself as a muralist, painter and sculptor who created the ‘Mother and Child’ fountain at the front entrance of Maendeleo House.
She even climbed scaffolds at Maendeleo to create the monumental painting (which is still there) of the Kenya mama holding her fist high in salute to the freedom that Kenyans are meant to enjoy.
But it’s the sprawling Kitengela estate that’s literally littered with glass and cement sculptures that arrests the visitor’s eyes even before she enters Nani’s quirky glass menagerie.

Other visitors have called Kitengela Glass everything from a glass paradise and glass museum to a glorious get-away where you can stay in one of Nani’s glistening stained-glass huts. The huts all have a Maasai manyatta feel to them, perhaps out of respect for the region her place occupies in the heart of Maasai land.
Or perhaps it’s because the simple manyatta structure is how she began building her new home after having lived with her first family on a tea plantation in Tigoni.
Either way, architecture is another rustic feature of Nani’s creativity. 
Most of her buildings are constructed with a mix of mud, cement and glass. That includes the mini-manyatta where her layer hens stay. She used a similar design for the quarters where her workers (including their families) reside.
These are the people who assist Nani everywhere from her organic garden and animal farm to her guest (glass hut) suites, stain-glass workshops and the jua-kali construction site where you’ll find Patrick Kibe creating everything from wind-chimes and bird-feeders to butterflies and hats out of recycled glass, metals and plastics.
                        Patrick Kibe just made this wind chime with recycled glass and scrap recycled metal at Nani's

But it’s the animals that constitute Nani’s main menagerie, some alive, others glass and stone. At the entrance of Kitengela glass, you’ll find a whole ‘zoo’-full of glassy creature sculptures including a stained-glass dragon, giant gorilla, baboons, wide-winged birds and other miscellaneous beings.
A few more are up the user-friendly ramp leading to the Mechtel Gallery where artworks by Kenyan painters can be found alongside Nani’s life-size leopard and other glass wall hangings.
But it’s in Nani’s inner sanctum that one encounters the menagerie of living creatures. That’s because Nani, in a past life was one of Konrad Lorenz’s ‘goose girls’. Lorenz was the Nobel prize-winning animal behaviorist who gave Nani the opportunity to launch her animal-loving life professionally. She has mixed her art and animal-loving ever since as one will see immediately, upon arrival at Kitengela Glass.
One might bump into a meandering camel as I did several months back. Missy was so tame that she and I became fast friends. Sadly, she ate poisonous berries that nobody knew were growing along the camels’ walkway. She passed on before Christmas and it has taken Nani time to get over her demise. But she was awaiting the arrival of a new camel last weekend when I went visiting.
On your way to tea with Nani, you are also bound to encounter a horde of geese, ducks and possibly a peacock along the way.
But it’s around Nani’s glass mosaic tea table that one will seriously discover just how much this amazing artist thrives on animals.
She just got a new Rottweiler pup (since she recently lost her beloved but ancient Tolstoy). In all she has up to a dozen lovely dogs at her feet at any one time.
                                                             Let the sleeping Rotweiller Archie lie for a while

The dogs don’t have a problem with all the Guinea fowl, geese or red-backed sparrows that frequent Nani’s outdoor tearoom which is gracefully encased in tree branches and multiple bird feeders that attract an infinite variety of feathered fellows.
Sadly, two of my most favorite birds who were family members of Nani’s menagerie passed on recently. The crested crane was most endearing despite her loving to nibble on whatever cake Nani’s master chef Mary had baked that day.
But the bird that was most difficult for Nani to lose was Vulchie, the beloved Egyptian vulture she had lived with for decades. Vulchie was a wise and wonderful bird who walked around Nani’s ‘court’ as if he were the king reigning over the menagerie. He’ll be immortalized soon in a book Nani’s producing.
                                               In magical memory to the magnificent Egyptian vulture Vulchie

                                                       Current Queen of the menagerie, Madam Guinnea Fowl


                                                                                          Man on Yellow


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (28 January 2019)

Olivia Pendergast has only been in Kenya a little less than three years. But this prolific American painter is one of those people who can’t keep herself from painting.
That’s how come she’s exhibited her art all over the US, from Washington state in the northwest to Florida in the southeast as well as in other countries before coming to Kenya, such as Ethiopia, Dubai and even Malawi.
In Kenya, she’s been in several group shows where her translucent landscapes have transcended clichéd styles and drawn upon a special skill that her artwork, currently on display at One Off Gallery, also reveals.
Both landscapes and portraits are what Olivia says are her present preoccupations. But in both cases, her work reveals an ineffable something that is not easy to define.
In her One Off show, she calls it an ‘Aura’, referring to a ‘distinctive atmosphere or quality [or emanation] that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing or place.’
If that sounds rather mystical, it could be. The artist says that everyone has an aura although not everyone has the capacity to see it in others. She’s had that talent all her life.

Mostly we associate auras with the halos depicted in religious art to suggest a holy or God-given quality bestowed on a person. But Olivia sees that quality (and otherwise invisible energy) emanating from everyone she meets.
“I don’t see auras as only reserved for saints. I see everyone as having one. Call it divine if you like,” she said at the opening of her second solo exhibition at One Off last Saturday.
That is why Olivia can paint portraits of taxi drivers like John (who’s on the cover of her catalogue) and a tuk tuk
driver in oils on a large canvases, and paint them not only emanating their respective auras (each individualized to reflect the particular energy of the individual) but also conveying a sense of dignity.
Her show includes house helpers, mamas and even one slightly inebriated man from Kibera where she met some of the subjects of her exhibition. All are painted respectfully. But more, all are expressive of unique emotions that seem to evoke each subject’s character.
For instance, the young ‘Girl on stool’ looks sweet as her aura appears almost like a leafy crown or garland, suggesting a natural innocence. Yet the little girl looks slightly uncomfortable. Her profile looks wistful, as if she’d like to be out playing with friends, not sitting still so Olivia can snap a photo which she will take home as a touch stone for her painting.

Yet despite her shooting photos of her subjects, (rather than having them sit for hours as portrait painters used to require), her art is anything but realistic. It’s figurative for sure, and her subjects are recognizable (although her own ‘Self Study in Red’ looks nothing like the vibrant artist we met at One Off. Her self-study looks subdued and serious, but also fully focused as is Olivia.
That piece may suggest that Olivia is more intent on painting what she feels about her subjects, not just what she sees. She explains that people’s auras emanate from within which implies that her art aims to connect the aura that she sees with the emotions that she feels about the one being portrayed.

Trained in a classical style of realistic painting at her art school in the US, Olivia admits she felt liberated when she discovered the art of the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani who also painted portraits and nudes (Olivia was in two group exhibitions at One Off that featured nudes).
Modigliani’s appeal was his modernist approach which elongated figures and created almost surrealist distortions of people’s forms. These are also characteristics of Olivia’s art.
What’s most distinctive about her work, (apart from the auras and usage of pencil to delineate form in her paintings) is the careful attention she gives to her faces. Each one is multifaceted and multicolored as if to reflect all the various emotions running through each character that she paints.
Take for instance, the Kibera man. He has red rosy cheeks, but they are mixed on his face with a rainbow array of colors, everything from shades of white, yellow, blue, pink and grey. But like impressionist paintings, when one stands at a distance away from the artwork, one can only see how vibrant and evocative the facial features of her subjects are.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (23 January 2019)

A most marvelous musical theatre experiment has been underway this past fortnight at The Elephant, the performing arts centre and artistic base of veteran musician Eric Wainaina and theatre producer Sheba Hirst.
The third edition of the NBO Musical Theatre Initiative Workshop is the brainchild of Eric, Sheba and dramaturg Roberta Levitow from the world-renowned Sundance Institute in Utah. As Senior Program Associate-International with Sundance, Roberta has worked with Eric in previous scriptwriting workshops for more than a decade.

But their current initiative is so incredibly ambitious that it promises to totally transform Kenya’s cultural scene in ways that not only embrace music and theatre and storytelling. It’s committed to creating no less than 15 original works of musical theatre that have been conceived, composed, and exquisitely crafted by no less than 40 Kenyan creatives, including writers, poets, composers, instrumentalists and lyricists.
“It was Eric who reached out to me with this idea of developing musical theatre in Kenya,” says Roberta who has previously developed new works for the stage in US, UK, the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa (including Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia).
Eric and Sheba’s vision of creating “a body of new musical theatre works that tell original homegrown and regional stories” has evolved ever since. “It’s been a process,” says Roberta who describes her role in the initiative as “mentor and consultant” to the project.
The first edition of the NBO Workshop took place in November of 2016 and was relatively small by comparison to the number of creatives who took part in the two weeks-long workshop that ended yesterday. Nonetheless, writers like John Sibi-Okumu, Wacuka Mungai Aleya Kassam, Aroji Otieno and of course Eric were among those who are still part of the process.
But between the first and second editions of the NBO workshops, Roberta linked up with the world-acclaimed New York University Tisch School of the Arts. As such graduate lecturers from Tisch took part in both the second and third editions of the workshops.
Tisch’s Deborah Brevoort and Fred Carl came to the Elephant in June 2018. And early this year, Fred returned with Roberta to participate in the workshop’s third edition. Fred shared his experience as not only a composer and musical director but also an educator whose specialty is in training artists to collaborate in the multi-disciplinary art form known as musical theatre.
This past Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, the Kenyan creatives attending the third workshop presented bits of their theatrical ‘works in process.’ But even as each set of artists presented only small portions of their still-evolving productions (the maximum time given to any one of the 15 was 15 minutes), their performances were awe-inspiring.
That’s largely because Eric and Sheba assembled incredible talents, including writers like Mugambi Nthiga (who’s working with Eric on ‘Three-Ten’), Sitawa Namwalie (with Lydia Owano Akwabi on ‘The Escape’), Laura Ekumbo, Anne Moraa and Aleya with Wanja Wohoro (on ‘Weaver Bird – Field Marshall Muthoni’), Elsaphan Njora with Tim Arinaitwe (on ‘Zaphan’) and Paul Kades and Benjamin Kabaseke with Tetu Shani and Vinny Ngugi (on ‘Kabaseke’) among many others.

Eric modestly admits that four of the 15 are concepts that he came up with. But as all his co-creators were either unavailable or involved in other works, his four were not featured centrally in the workshop. Nonetheless, he was able to share small bits from ‘Pani Puri’ (on which he’s working with Aleya Kassam and Rushab Nandha), ‘Three-Ten’ (with Mugambi, Stuart Nash and others), ‘Starlight’ (with Wacuka Mungai) and ‘DJ Lwanga’ which is his solo creation as far as story (or ‘book’), lyrics and music are concerned.

The other evolving musicals include ‘Don’t Turn off the Lights’ by Mwendie Mbugua and Tina Nduba-Banja with Kanji Mbugua, ‘Bandassary’ by the Too Early for Birds Collective, ‘Akenya’ by John Sibi-Okumu with his sons Jason and Jacob, ‘Magic Man’ by Danson Kiundi, ‘Deporting’ by Bien Barasa, ‘Nairobae’ by Aroji Otieno and Barbara ‘Sage’ Ng’eno and “Rambo Bambo Boom’ by Mayonde Masya Music, Christina Banja and Eugene Kanyugo.
                                                               The Escape by Sitawa Namwalie