Tuesday, 17 September 2019


                                                                                     Art by Ancent Soi

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 17 September 2019)

Ever since the French Cultural Centre came to town back in 1977, the French have been playing a pioneering role in the development of contemporary art in Kenya. Prior to that year, Alliance Francaise had been primarily promoting and teaching their cherished language to receptive Kenyans.
It was with that mission in mind that the French first arrived in 1949 and are currently celebrating their 70th anniversary in Kenya.
                                                                         Cop by Joseph Bertiers Mbatia

But the French’s sole focus on language training was dramatically transformed once the late FCC director Pierre Comte arrived and opened the Centre’s cultural doors wide to all aspects of the creative arts, including drama, dance, film and live music as well as the visual arts.
Very few of the artists who were painting or sculpting back then are still around today. Either they have passed away, moved onto other spheres of activity or simply decided to retire from a contemporary Kenyan art scene that has grown much faster than anyone could have imagined in those early days.
The evidence of Kenya’s exploding art scene is most definitely on display at Alliance Francaise in time for the institution’s 70th anniversary which officially took off September 10th with the formal opening of the third Kenya Art Panorama.
                  Art by (L-R) Chelenge, Thom Ogonga, Jimnah Kimani, Peter Elungat, Michael Soi and Moses Nyawanda

Featuring a minimum of 70 local artists, this year’s Art Panorama effectively fills two floors of Alliance Francaise. But it still doesn’t fully convey the magnitude of AF’s and FCC’s contribution to the development of Kenya’s dynamic art scene.
For instance, there are a number of local artists whose works have previously been up on Alliance’s walls who are not represented in this ’70 at 70’ showcase. One the one hand, that is understandable since the institution has premiered many more Kenyan artists than just 70. But on the other hand, the omissions are obvious.
For example, there are a host of graffiti artists whose art is not on hand. There is also a dearth of women artists as well. Artists like Jackie Karuti, Nduta Kariuki, Naitimu Nyanjom, Gloria Muthoka, Kathy Katuti, Wambui Mwangi, Yony Waite, Leena Shah, Geraldine Robarts, Anne Mwiti, Nancy Chela Cherwon and Rosemary Karuga all have exhibited at AF before, yet they are not represented there today.
                                                                  Glass art by Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass

At the same time, we see wonderful works in the exhibition by accomplished artists like Mary Collis, Beatrice Wanjiku, Mary Ogembo, Joan Otieno, Rahab Shine, Nani Croze and Chelenge van Rampelberg.
But probably the most serious omission from this otherwise all-encompassing exhibition is the absence of art by Jak Katarikawe who died this past year but was among the very first Kenya-resident artists to exhibit at FCC back in the 1970s.
Nonetheless, Harsita Waters has done a brilliant curatorial job, assembling the old and the young, the established and up-and-coming, and the intergenerational, meaning an artist like Ancent Soi, who has been painting since the 1960s and is still alive and well today.
                                                                          Prof. Wangari Maathai by Solo

She also managed to get a piece by Asaph Ng’ethe Macua, the 88-year-old artist who, with Rosemary Karuga, was among the first Kenyan artists to graduate in the early 1950s from Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art.
It’s a marvel to see works by artists from Ngeche, Banana Hill, Kuona Artists Collective, Go-Down, Dust Depo and Railway Museum as well as many independents and several more whose works are most frequently seen at One Off Gallery, like Beatrice Wanjiku who won ‘most promising female artist’ at the 2006 Contemporary Art in Kenya Juried Exhibition. Others who won accolades there that year and whose works are in the 70@70 show include Fred Abuga (‘most promising male artist’), Samuel Githui (for ‘best painting’), Bertiers Mbatia (for ‘best sculpture’) and Kamal Shah (for ‘best mixed media art’).
                                                                                  Samuel Githui's Lamu triptych

This Kenyan Art Panorama revives an idea launched back in 1992 when the FCC director Guy Lacroix initiated the first Art Panorama. But both before and ever since, the FCC/AF has been the venue of choice for countless Kenyan artists.
And while one occasionally hears negative prognoses that contemporary Kenyan art is in decline because venues like Watatu, Kuona Trust, RaMoMa and even the GoDown have come and gone, it’s Alliance Francaise that has endured and offered awesome opportunities for creatives who want the public to see and appreciate their art.
                                                                Michael Soi's 'Schengen Visa'

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