There is an excellent art exhibition running at the Nairobi National Museum. It is called Kesho Kutwa, Swahili for the day after tomorrow.
Yes, the exhibition is looking forward to the establishment of the National Art Gallery of Kenya within the museum (the Nagok project). It celebrates the rich history of art in East Africa and it is displaying the work of five Kenyan artists active now.
The art history story is written up on a wall. It reminds us of the first attempt to showcase East African art – the Sorsbie Art Gallery, established in 1960 in the grand “Petit Versailles” in Muthaiga, which is now the residence of the Belgian ambassador.
I’m glad to see Elimo Njau recognised. He, also in the 1960s, set up the Paa ya Paa gallery in the city centre. I will never forget a study tour meeting I arranged there in 1973 with Elimo Njau, the painter; Okot p’Bitek, perhaps one of Africa’s greatest poets; and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, certainly Kenya’s greatest writer. It was a time of creativity and enthusiasm here in Nairobi.
Another very important name on that wall of history is Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice-president. He was also one of Africa’s greatest collectors of art from across the continent. And it was his dream that a national art gallery would be created. His dream and his efforts were frustrated.
But his business partner of African Heritage, Alan Donovan, has done so much to make sure that most of his collections have been beautifully displayed at, first, the National Archives and, second, at the Nairobi Gallery – the old provincial commissioner’s office at the junction of Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway.
The five artists who have works on display are Peterson Kamwathi, Beatrice Wanjiku, Michael Wafula, Peter Ngugi and Dennis Muraguri.
Peterson Kamwathi, who has exhibited in Venice and London as well as at the One Off Contemporary Art Gallery here in Nairobi, has three enigmatic mixed media drawings called Social Contract I, II and III – each depicting a man with a child on his shoulder.
Beatrice Kamwathi has also exhibited at the One Off Gallery, as well as in New York. She has four acrylic paintings that I find somewhat disturbing – bloodied human rib cages. She relates them to the Covid experience. The Museum’s catalogue describes her style as refreshingly raw and unapologetic. It is certainly raw.
Peter “Ghose” Ngugi is far less raw and much more solid. He has a number of his large silhouettes in the exhibition – black figures without features. In contrast, the clothes they wear are bright and colourful African designs. The “catalogue speak” has it that “the contrast and separation of colours and strokes are metaphorical of individuality and co-existence”. I don’t know about that. But they are very fine pieces.
Michael Wafula’s abstract paintings are well-travelled. He has had them exhibited in Italy, China, the USA, as well as in Tanzania and Kenya. Five are on display at the Museum. The catalogue says Wafula’s work deals with “the disappointment of socio-political failures”. I don’t see that. But I do see a very pleasing use of colour and texture.
Dennis Muraguri is well travelled, too, having been to India, London and South Africa. His brilliant woodcut prints on paper of matatus speak to us about downtown Nairobi life. And here I do agree with the catalogue when it talks of “a feast of urban art in motion”, depicting matatu culture “as brash and aggressive as they can be gracious and courteous”.
When I first visited the Nairobi National Museum in the late 1960s, its main concern was to inform us about Kenya’s past. Now, it is also appraising us about the present and encouraging us to think about the future. The exhibitions are more imaginatively displayed. They prompt curiosity; they entertain as well as educate.
That all this is working well was shown by the good number of families there last Sunday.
John Fox is Chairman of iDC. Email: [email protected]