Friday, 5 April 2019


                                                                           Loud Mouth by Evans Ngure

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 5 April 2019)

Kenyan artists are consistently proving there’s no end to imagination and innovation. It’s what many of them illustrate every day as they strive to find artistic media with which to express themselves.
Oftentimes, traditional art materials are too pricey for struggling artists to afford. On the other hand, many prefer to experiment with alternative means of expression. That’s where you will find a vast range of local artists, everyone from Rosemary Karuga, Kioko Mwitiki, Joan Otieno and Meshak Oiro to Cyrus Kabiru, Nani Croze, Carbon Mwini, Evans Ngure and Maliza Kiasuma.
                                                           Laser art: Carbon Mwini 'paints' on plywood with laser

And there are many more, including Peter Walala,  Joseph ‘Bertiers’ Mbatia, Irene Wanjiru, Harrison Mburu, Moira Bushkimani and Samuel Omondi.
All of these artists have fascinating stories to tell. For instance, when Cyrus Kabiru started creating sculptures out of scrap metal, he used to hire young boys to collect discarded bottle tops from local bars. After that, he’d hammer them flat and reshape them into crocodiles and scarecrows. Then he started transforming old bicycle frames into beautiful works of art. And now, he’s a world-acclaimed artist whose ‘C-Stunners’ sculpted eye-wear is everywhere from the Zeiss Museum of Contemporary African Art to multiple magazine covers and private art collections all over the world.
There are a number of local artists who shamelessly visit junkyards to collect the materials they require to create everything from sculptures and jewelry to ladies’ handbags, dresses and matching shoes. Currently, Meshak Oiro goes there to look for discarded bicycle chains which he solders into sculptures like the ‘Cinderella shoe’ he recently exhibited at the Art Cupboard, a new art space established by Paul Onditi who personally paints using bleach and other mixed media on plastic sheets.
Joan Otieno visits junk yards twice a week with the young women she mentors at Warembo Wasanii. Together they collect mainly plastics which they take back to their Kariobangi North studio to wash and upcycle into plastic ‘fashions’ which the girls model at venues like UNEP and the Landmark Building in Karen.
Sam Omondi and Khan Key find their art materials primarily at private airstrips where local pilots tend to leave their derelict airplanes. “The pilots are usually happy to have us dismember their old planes,” says Sam who, like Khan, is a trained architect who prefers making furniture from airplane spare parts. For instance, they use propellers to make coffee tables, turn a small plane’s fuselage into a beverage bar. They even transform aircraft wings into dinner tables.

But possibly the most touching story of an artist recycling used materials into beautiful works of art is that of 94-year-old Rosemary Karuga. Born in Meru, Rosemary is the first Kenyan woman to go to Makerere University’s Margaret Trowel School of Art in 1950. She graduated in 1952, then got married and had a family. For several debates, she virtually disappeared from the local art scene. To sustain her family, she taught art in a Kiambu primary school.
By the time her children had grown up and Rosemary felt compelled to reconnect with the professional artist she had once been, she had no means to buy materials. It was then that she (who’d previously been best known as a sculptor) began creating collage art, using scraps of paper jackets from home products like Rexona soap and Unga flour.
After almost thirty years sacrificing the artist in her for the sake of her family, Rosemary re-emerged in the 1980s to become the leading collage artist in Kenya. Today, she lives abroad with her daughter but her art, which reflects lovely narratives of African rural life, is just as fresh as ever.

Finally, another source of artistic innovation is ‘mitumba’ or second-hand clothing. One artist who was fortunate to have Kenyatta University fine art education but no funds to start up his artistic career is Evans Ngure. He did have family who worked at Gikomba, so he knew about the women who bought second-hand clothes which they remade into saleable baby clothes. “They used to snip off the buttons from the clothes they bought, so after they left, me and my friend would collect the buttons and I’d use them to make jewelry that I’d sell at art fairs,” says Evans who basically describes how he raised the seed capital to start up his artistic career.

Peter Walala also used second-hand clothes as the source of the art materials that won him a first-prize at the 2016 Manjano Art Competition. “I’d get mitumba, then clip off the labels and finally stitch them altogether,” says the son of a tailor who taught him from childhood how to use a sewing machine.
Walala’s labels, which looked like a giant abstract collage, won awards for his ingenious use of a medium no one had previously thought of as fodder for creating a work of art. In Manjano 2019, Walala also stitched non-traditional materials together to create an unusual work of art. This time it was square rubber tubing from bicycles. But in the center of every square was a pressure valve, so the work is three dimensional and highly original. it's not nearly as colorful as were his labels but the detail is even more unique than the cloth. Walala is one of the most innovative artists in Kenya.

Finally, some local artists are not only ingenious but environmentally concerned. Such a one is Nani Croze who decided in the late 70s to start a new career and switch from being a mural artist to being a glass artist. She didnt have the training at the time but she went an apprenticed with some of the finest glass artists on the planet. Then she found a Finnish man who helped her create her first glass blowing furnace using scrap metal and making it jua-kali style. And ever since, Nani has been creating glass art by recycling broken wine and whisky bottles, melting them into everything from vases, glasses, pitchers and finally stained glass designs which have done into to churches all over Kenya. 
In fact, Nani isnt the only local artist who is fully aware that she/he's doing a service to the environment by recycling trash, up-cycling it into elegant works of art.

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