Tuesday, 22 May 2018



By margaretta wa gacheru

Judging of the 120th Flower and Plant Show, organized by the Nairobi district of the Kenya Horticultural Society (KHS) is taking place today at the SSDS Temple on Lower Kabete Road. That’s so everything will be ready for the opening of the Show tomorrow morning at 10am sharp and run through Sunday at 2pm.

“The judges are all award-winning gardeners who have years of experience judging flower and plant shows,” says Mrs Balinder Ahluwalia, chairperson of KHS/Nairobi and organizer of this year’s show.

“There are nine judges and one pre-show judge who helps ensure the participants don’t get disqualified over small infraction of the rules,” she adds as she shows me the booklet containing detailed rules and lists of cups, prizes and special awards that KHS gardeners take quite seriously.

In fact, Mrs Ahluwalia is an avid gardener in her own right and one who’s participated in KHS shows for the last twelve years.

“In the past, I’ve entered my flowers and plants in many more categories than this year. It’s because I’ve been so involved in getting other gardeners to exhibit in this year’s show,” she says as she escorts me around her home garden just days before the show opens.

The rains have been rough on many gardens in the city, especially those like hers which specializes in flowering plants. “The rain is good for growing plants, of course. But it’s hard on my flowers,” she says almost apologetically.

Normally, she claims her garden is more colorful. But as I gaze out over her backyard garden and the rainbow array of potted- and hanging-plants that occupy nearly every spare space on the other three sides of her town house, I can hardly imagine her place looking more colorful.

“My children laugh at the way I fill up pots with plants every chance I get,” she says, noting that her pots come in all sizes and materials, from terra cotta and cement to plastic.

But perhaps even more impressive than the number of potted plants she has is the way she remembers all their names

One of her most impressive flowers is the ‘Heliconia’ which is a hanging red and yellow flower that she plans to display at the show. I can’t begin to name all the plants and flowers that she reeled off as we walked around. A lot of them were exotic, like the ‘Holmoskiodia’ which also has a red flower shaped like its nickname, the Chinese man cap.

But Mrs Ahluwalia also likes the local indigenous plants since she says they are the ones that attract the bubble bees and the birds. Like clockwork, she says the birds come around at 4 in the afternoon. So if she’s sitting on her veranda, looking out on the backyard, she can watch the bees go for the African daisies as well as the Euphorbia, Salvia, Abutilon and even the Russelia which is mainly frequented by birds with long beaks since they’re the only ones that can reach the choicest pollen from inside the Russelia’s blossom.

The plants I remember best are ones known for their nicknames, like the lobster claw, torch lily, lollipop plant and air plant (also known as Tillandsia). She also has Hibiscus in her garden, which come in handy since someone recently gave her a four-year-old tortoise which loves to eat Hibiscus petals.

Mrs Ahluwalia doesn’t only have flowers in her garden. She also has trees and black stem bambusa, succulents like aloes, herbs like Rosemary, Indian basil, assorted mints and even Vanilla vines. Nonetheless, she’s a specialist in ornamental flowers since she’s seriously love their natural beauty.

“Plants have feelings too. And if you nourish them with love, they feel it and then they thrive,” she says. However, she adds there are other steps that must be taken to ensure your plants are healthy.

For instance, she fertilizes her plants and flowers regularly with a combination of organic compost and animal manure. Plus she doesn’t use any chemicals (not even pesticides) on her plants.

“You don’t need pesticides if you keep your plants and your soils healthy because then they’ll be strong enough to resist any intrusive pest,” she explains.

During the plant and flower show, there will be exhibitions and awards for everything from orchids and bromeliads to climbing plants and succulents, fruits, vegetables and culinary herbs. There will even be displays dedicated to balcony gardens, which is one of the few events Mrs Ahluwalia will participate in.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 22 May 2018)

Often,  when I feel overwhelmed with an overload of stories to write, I think of Hilary Ng’weno who was my second editor-in-chief from the time I first came to Kenya as a Rotary Foundation fellow back in the 1970s. The first editor was the late Odhiambo Okite, a wonderful man who advised me to apply for a job writing about Arts and Entertainment for Stellascope, Hilary’s company. It was a job he said hadn’t been advertised as yet.

Okite knew I loved writing about the arts since I’d been hired to write and edit stories about women for the NCCK publication ‘Target’. But often I’d write theatre reviews for the paper since I was still doing a master’s degree in literature at University of Nairobi and I’d been a member of John Ruganda’s Free Traveling Theatre two years before.

Well, I went for that interview and was humbled to meet this man who not only founded the most influential political magazine in Kenya at the time, Weekly Review. Hilary had also been Kenya’s first indigenous African editor of The Daily Nation. As it turned out, I got the job and The Nairobi Times was officially launched in November 1977.

One of the first things my new workmates advised me was to keep my distance from Hilary. Otherwise, I could easily ‘get the sack’ since his managing editor, Sarah Elderkin didn’t want any woman spending too much time with Hilary. If she saw a staff member female take ‘too long’ in his office, that woman wasn’t likely to last long on the job.

It was a warning I took seriously, especially after having one run-in early on with Sarah. So I spoke to Hilary very rarely. But on one occasion, (the one I recall when I feel overloaded with stories to write) Hilary saw that I was a bit slow going on a story he was waiting for. He paused a moment, then said (to paraphrase) he could hardly sympathize since he easily writes three or four stories at a go and doesn’t even feel a sweat. Those were not exactly his words, but the quantity and quality of writing he could pound out of his typewriter (in those pre-computer days) in a flash was beyond impressive. It was unfathomable genius.

I’d already known that Hilary (like my brother Steve) had gone to Harvard and studied nuclear physics (or some other esoteric brand of that science). He’d come home, but as there weren’t jobs back then for nuclear physicists, he picked journalism as an alternative. And that is how he came to be the Nation’s first African editor in 1965.

What was most thrilling about working for Hilary was being on the ground floor with his team as he launched The Nairobi Times. I believe he envisaged it being a Kenyan cross between New York Times, Washington Post and the London Observer.

Nairobi Times ran from late 1977 until 1983 when we were bought by Daniel arap Moi and became The Kenya Times. My own feeling is that our paper, NT, was ahead of its time, just as was Hilary. The other problem I suspect was that Hilary was more of a media man and intellectual than a savvy businessman who was shrewd about making and managing money. He had a wonderful vision for Nairobi Times: he wanted no petty crime stories or juicy gossip in the paper. That implicitly meant the vast majority of newspaper-reading Kenyans wouldn’t buy the paper. The other problem related to advertising. At the outset, Hilary insisted that Nairobi Times was for an ‘elite’ readership. It was a marketing trope that appealed to corporate elites and diplomats, but apparently had less relevance to ordinary Kenyans.

 Years later I learned the real problem with Nairobi Times had been the advertising agencies which were not forthcoming about giving Hilary ads. Apparently, a black African’s presence in the mainstream media was not welcome, so there was a concerted effort to ensure he couldn’t obtain the ads required to keep the paper afloat.

Whatever the story, what I know is that it was tragic when we (the NT staff) were shipped off to State House to ‘pay homage’ to our new boss, President Daniel arap Moi.

I had been so humbled and am still so proud to have worked for Hilary that I refused to stick with Kenya Times (also known as ‘Kenya Sometimes’) for long. And although I did as I’d been advised and never got too close to Hilary, I will forever be deeply grateful for what I gained from working with him.

First of all was the professionalism that he always conveyed as a first class journalist. Second was the farsighted freedom of thought that he displayed up until the time he had to compromise when he had to sell Nairobi Times.

Occasionally, I would write book reviews or arts stories for Weekly Review, the publication that put Hilary on the map not just in Kenya but internationally. I was once told the US State Department even ran a course to study the writings and analyses by Hilary in Weekly Review.

The one caution Hilary gave me early on in my work at Nairobi Times and Weekly Review was be careful about the way I analyzed the arts. I had just studied for three years with Ngugi wa Thiong’o at University of Nairobi and much of Ngugi’s Leftist perspective had rubbed off on me. But Hilary forewarned that if I continued writing along that line, I would either get myself deported or fired!

I took his message seriously, and so today, I continue to write about ‘soft news’ which is how the arts are normally viewed. For better or worse, I still write without rocking too many people’s boats, apart from the artists. But to tell the truth, I owe my career in journalism to Hilary. Thank you, sir, for hiring me back in August, 1977.



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 22 May 2018 for Business Daily)

It isn’t every day that a Kenyan artist is invited to be keynote speaker at a forum hosted by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. And not just to speak about “Re-visioning Africa through the Creative Lens of Cyrus Kabiru,” as his talk was entitled. 

                                  Cyrus in the room given him at Zeitz MOCAA Museum of Contemporary African Art
Cyrus was also invited to run an afternoon workshop at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art on the same topic last Saturday, 19th May.  
Cyrus has kept well out of the limelight in Kenya, despite his ‘C-Stunner’ sculptures gaining worldwide acclaim. Indeed, Kenyans are hardly aware that his hand-wrought wire specs (which one writer described as “surreal and phantasmagorical creations”) have been on the cover of numerous arts and fashion magazines. He’s also been invited to exhibit, speak and participate in workshops all the way from Los Angeles and London to Milan, Tilburg, Holland and Cape Town to name a few of the myriad cities his art has taken him to.
                                Cyrus atop his new house on the edge of Nairobi and Machakos counties 

Most Kenyans probably don’t know that for years, Cyrus had been creating his so-called ‘junk art’ at Kuona Trust (now Kuona Artists Collective). Creating crocodiles and other creatures out of soda and beer bottle tops that he’d collected from local bars, Cyrus had started working with the only ‘art materials’ accessible to him (namely junk) many years MAC discover that the wiry specks were major hits among visitors who passed by Kuona Trust.
Much has changed since then. Still, it must be humbling for a man who frankly came from a humble roots himself, growing up in Korogocho (the site of one of Nairobi’s largest garbage dumps), to explicitly have his ‘futuristic C-stunners’ be described as an inspiration for others to come appreciate and even emulate.
                           Cyrus with the founder of Zeitz MOCAA, Dr. Jocham Zeitz and an art collector
But Cyrus hasn’t only been a hit in Europe and the States. He is also represented in South Africa, both at the SMAC Gallery in Cape Town and in the permanent collection of the largest contemporary African art institution in the world, the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary African Art) also in Cape Town. Only one of two Kenyans to be included in the Museum’s permanent showcase of African art, (Wangechi Mutu is the other one), Cyrus has just one problem these days. And that is finding sufficient time to come home and create more wonderful C-Stunners. He’s a man in public demand.                    


Monday, 21 May 2018



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 21 May 2018 for Saturday Nation)

Kenyan artists are ever exploring the local terrain for new spaces to display their art.
There’s prestige for an artist to exhibit their work in established galleries and art centers. But if you’re not near the top of gallerists’ lists of painters or sculptors to be put on display, then life can be tough trying to get your artwork into the public eye.
That’s why Dinesh Revankar is glad to have met the new Hotel InterContinental Regional Manager Oliver Geyer. He’s the main man in charge of all aspects of the Hotel’s Nairobi operations, including the d├ęcor and what hangs on the walls.

Dinesh had already been selling his work in the African Heritage Gift Shop inside the Hotel. But once he realized that Mr Geyer had been the person responsible for Ruth Nyakundi’s exhibiting her art all around the lobby area of the ‘Intercon’, he introduced himself to the Regional Manager and asked if he could do the same once Ruth’s show had closed. And that is how it happened that Dinesh now has what amounts to a major solo exhibition at one of the leading five-star hotels in town.
Fortunately, the artist paints in a wide variety of styles, so that one can walk from one end of the Hotel to the other and see a rich assortment of artistry. There’s everything from wildlife and Kenyan landscapes to abstract art and iconic Kenyan imagery such as the Migration in the Maasai Mara, traditional Turkana dancers and Savannah sunset. As such, the passerby might not even realize that all the art is by one person, except Dinesh has carefully labeled all his works including prices and his personal contacts.
Such comprehensive labelling is not normally displayed in gallery shows, but the Hotel is not a gallery, according to Mr Geyer.

In fact, it is not even company policy to regularly hang local artists’ works in Intercontinental Hotels. But as every regional manager is in charge of his hotel, Mr Geyer sees part of his social responsibility to his guests to introduce them to a bit of Kenyan culture and art. At the same time, his policy is also not charge the artist anything like a commission for his or her sales, which is why Dinesh includes his email and phone number on all his labels.
The practice of putting local artists’ works up on his hotel’s wall actually began for the German-born manager when he was based in Muscat, Oman. “It was in Oman that I met an American independent gallerist who was especially concerned about promoting Omani women artists. I liked the idea and began doing the same through exhibiting their work in the hotel,” he told Saturday Nation.

That is also why, when he came to Kenya, he wanted to continue the practice of exhibiting works of local women artists. “But as I didn’t know how to find them, I began looking through the hotel’s storage and I found work by Ruth,” he says.
“I contacted her and invited her to bring her paintings. We had them up in the hotel for almost one year,” he adds.
Two of Ruth’s large paintings remained behind at the InterContinental in the reception areas. Meanwhile, the rest of the wall space on the ground floor is filled with Dinesh’s art.
It’s also in the Business Centre as well as in main dining room known as The Terrace, the Executive Lounge upstairs, and even in the Presidential Suite.

Personally, his lion in the Executive Lounge is my favorite. But then, the Presidential Suite was occupied on the day I came to see what Dinesh considers to be his finest pieces, so I’ll reserve final judgment.

Dinesh is a native of Mumbai and came to Kenya in the mid-1980s. He has worked as a graphic designer, illustrator and fine artist who often gets calls from guests in the hotel who like a particular painting but feel it’s either too big or too small for their needs. So he’s become something of a customizer, meaning an artist who agrees to duplicate his art to accommodate his new client’s need. “It’s no trouble for me and I’m happy to complete the sale,” he adds.



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (composed 11 May 2018)
                                                                                           Jade Lake by camille wekesa

Whenever I hear Camille Wekesa’s having an exhibition, I have to be the first in line to see what this extraordinary Kenyan artist has conjured up out of her most fertile imagination.
It hasn’t mattered if she was the artist exhibiting or if it was a show she was curating, something I have seen her do several times in the past few years. One time, it was at the CFC Stanbic Bank where she’d assembled an awesome array of original portraits by Kenyan artists. She’d been inspired when visiting the Bank’s home base in UK and found it had a massive portraiture collection which it had been growing for many years. I never found out if any of the paintings in her show became part of the bank’s ‘mother’ collection. But in a sense it didn’t matter since a myriad of local art lovers appreciated Camille’s ambitious initiative.

The other show that she curated was destined to be exhibited in London (just like the one she’s about to have in early June). That exhibition was a two-hander in which she shared the ‘billing’ with one of Kenya’s leading pioneer painters, Ancent Soi. Camille’s and Ancent’s paintings were previewed at the Russian Embassy for a week in 2012 before they were shipped off to UK where the two artists had a successful show at the Deborah Gage Gallery of Art on Bond Street.
It wasn’t long thereafter that Camille moved up to Nanyuki where she’s been painting practically nonstop ever since. Between then and now, she had one elegant one-woman exhibition at Red Hill Art Gallery. She’s also been creating massive murals up at the Lewa Conservancy in Laikipia.

But Camille has also taken some time to visit some of the most scenic spots in this country, two of which are being exquisitely featured in the show she’s about to have in UK from early June.
‘Jade & Silver’ is the name Camille has given to the body of works she’s painted over the last year() and which reflect her awe-inspired experiences while visiting Lake Turkana and Tsavo Game Park.

“Lake Turkana is also known as the Jade Lake, and as I was so spellbound when I first saw the lake, I wanted to keep the name in the title of this show,” says Camille whose landscape portraits of that part of the world are just as primordial, pristine and powerful as I remember that region to be when I first went there some time ago. She captures the majesty of those craggy mountains, a terrain that also feels as if it might have once been an abode or maybe just a resting place for spirits or extraterrestrial gods.

Out of the 30 odd paintings in her Jade & Silver show, only five or six reveal Camille’s humble fascination and almost reverential feeling for that ‘in the beginning’ effect of Turkana. The rest reveal another kind of awe that she experienced, this time when she visited Tsavo Park.
Tsavo’s a place she’s been to many times before, but when she went late last year??, the land was dry, the trees were plentiful but barren of leaves. And the day she visited, her vision of the landscape resulted in her creating a whole series of singularly delicate and dazzling trees whose branches are intricately interlaced in shimmering silvery mesh.

“Each tree took many days to complete,” says Camille whose painstaking labor painting countless filigreed lines, curves and intersecting branches is a marvel beyond imagining (almost).
Another Kenyan artist, Mary Collis, was on hand for Camille’s Nairobi preview of Jade & Silver and suggested that her tree paintings were so precious it would be a pity if they weren’t kept intact, that is, if one individual, art institution or museum couldn’t buy them all at once. But she’d painted over 20 trees, that might not be practical for one individual although a museum could probably be able to.

Mary, I and others had been privileged to be at Camille’s one-day preview of Jade & Silver which she’s curated and hung at the Muthaiga Country Club. The Saturday before she’d also had a one-day preview exhibition not so much to generate sales, but as to get public feedback, which was wholly affirmative and utterly in awe of what she’d achieved. For especially with the Turkana paintings, Camille captured a super-realist verging on a surrealist feeling of that timeless region can conjure in one’s mind.  


                                                              Kevo Stero with some of his art at Polka Dot Gallery


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted May 21, 2018)

Maasai Mbili is one of the first Kenyan artist collectives to get organized in Nairobi. There were some that preceded it, like the Ngecha Artists Association which was launched in 1995, several members of whom will be in Ngecha Art Centre’s upcoming exhibition opening 2nd June. There was also the Banana Hill Artists Studio which preceded the BHA Gallery by more than a decade, having first assembled in 1992.
                                                                          Vincent Masinde's art at Polka Dot Gallery

But Maasai Mbili is a 21st century phenomenon. It’s a collective that began with two young sign writers, Gombo Otieno and Kota Otieno, who were living in Kibera and shrewdly dressing up as Maasai as a masterful marketing device to attract more business. Nobody could ignore the imagination and humor that went into two young men from Western Kenya dressing up like Morans in bright Maasai shukas and parading around Nairobi’s most notorious slum, armed not with spears but with paint brushes attached to long spear-like sticks.
The two Otieno’s (no immediate family ties) quickly became known as Maasai Mbili (abbreviated as M2), and even more quickly attracted other aspiring artists who wanted to associate with them. It didn’t happen overnight, and M2 has seen many artists come and go, including the late Ashif (aka George) Malamba.
But there’s a core of M2 artists who’s stuck with the group for years. They include Gomba Otieno, Mbuthia Maina, Kevo Stero, J.K. Rabala, Charles Chakara and Ashif (who remains a member of the group in spirit). Meanwhile, there are six more recent members of M2 who are altogether part of the first group exhibition, entitled ‘Wachembe’ that M2 has had at Polka Dot Gallery in Karen.
                          Painted Print by Mbuthia Maina who also cocurated the Polka Dot show with Rose Jepkorir

The seven ‘newcomers’ (relatively speaking) are Anitah Kivochy, Brian Odhiambo, James Dundi, Janet Akinyi, Joakim Kwaru, Ronald Ronex and Vincent Masinde. But whether new or old, the beauty of M2 is the collective’s acceptance of artists who share the same vision and commitment that Gomba has frequently shared with me. It is that they have no desire to ‘escape’ Kibera or so-called slum life. They’d rather thrive on the ad hoc energy that they feel every day of living in the city (Kibera) within a city, Nairobi, and creating art that reflects the dignity, determination, wit and resilience of ordinary Kenyans who are getting on with their lives.
That attitude, not of glorifying poverty, but of appreciating people’s humanity, is reflecting in all the works in ‘Wachembe’. Whether it’s the satiric ‘poster art’ that Maasai Mbili is best known for, seen especially in the so-called ‘politician poster’ paintings by Gomba and graffiti-like vinyl disks of Brian Odhiambo, or the hand-stitched metallic artworks of James Dundi or even the painted prints of Mbuthia Maina, (the M2 artist who co-curated the show with Rose Jepkorir), the M2 artists are a distinctive breed.
Today, there are many more artists whose main art materials are ‘found (recycled) objects’. However, ten years back, this was not the case. But M2 artists have been creating art working with such found items (also known as trash or junk) since their inception. And in the process of transforming trash into artistic treasures, they have made an important statement about the beauty, wisdom and artistic ingenuity that’s to be found in places that some would dismiss as an ‘ugly slum’ out of their ignorance and not knowing that it’s not only the rich and elite who appreciate art and creativity. On the contrary, it’s that appreciation for art and beauty that M2 artists have that is well represented at the Polka Dot.
The M2 artists will hold a workshop at Polka Dot on Saturday, 2nd June. To attend you register with Polka Dot online.
Meanwhile, several openings transpired in the last fortnight. At Circle Art Gallery, Sidney Mang’ang’o’s ‘Imagined Structures’ exhibition opened 16th May and will run through 9th June. This past Wednesday, Rhodia Mann’s Museum of Samburu Culture was launched at the International School of Kenya. The same day, seven (more) Ugandan artists’ group show opened in the Exhibition Hall of Village Market. It was just last month that six Ugandan painters did the same thing at Village. All have been talented and well-trained, many having the good fortune to have been taught at the oldest art school in East Africa, Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art.
Finally, tomorrow afternoon, the artworks of Kenya-born painter Timothy Brooke will be showcased at One Off Gallery. ‘Earth and Sky’ will feature oil paintings and water colors as well as graphics by the internationally-acclaimed artist.

Saturday, 19 May 2018



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 19 may 2018)

I call Hilary Ng’weno the ‘grandfather of Kenyan journalism’. And I applaud the family from putting the spotlight on Hilary’s contribution to journalism in this country. There’s little doubt that he put Kenyan journalism on the global media map. And not only because he was the first indigenous African editor in chief of a leading English-language publication in Kenya, having taken on that title and task in 1965 for the Daily Nation, the most widely read daily newspaper in Kenya.
He caught media experts’ attention even more assiduously when he came out with Weekly Review (in 1975), the weekly (Newsweek-styled) political magazine that many Kenyans read as if it was a political ‘gospel’. So plugged in was Hilary into the political pulse of the nation that his grassroots reporting was studied abroad as well as locally. It was the concern of those who wanted to understand what was actually happened on the ground as the country was breaking post-colonial ground and the shifting tides of activity and intrigue weren’t easily decipherable except by local journalists working with Hilary who could read between the lines and interpreted what was really going on.
I had the good fortune of getting a ground-floor job at The Nairobi Times after Hilary decided (in 1977) to start a weekly newspaper that he would advertise as producing ‘quality journalism’ and catering for an emerging business class who, among other things, valued culture and the arts as well as business news and politics. I was hired to write about culture, entertainment and the arts, focusing on indigenous culture and highlighting African talents in all aspects of the arts.
It was my privilege to be hired by Hilary several months before the newspaper actually came out since that meant I could hear his pearls of wisdom regarding how to fulfill my job description, given I had only one journalism job before his (with the National Christian Council of Kenya at its weekly publication, “Target”) and I had just completed a master’s degree in Literature from University of Nairobi. So I felt Hilary actually hired me on trust, his trust of my former editor, the late Odhiambo Okite, and the quality of my interview with him which was thoughtful and honest.
Hilary also hadn’t gotten a degree in journalism. His field had been nuclear physics at Harvard (I believe) and then I think he studied for a time under Henry Kissinger. But that is hearsay since I didn’t learn those details from the man himself. In fact, I had been advised early on to keep my distance from my boss since the No. 2 in the office, Sarah, didn’t like people (particularly women) getting too close to him. Nonetheless, the few conversations I had with him were always instructive and I credit much of the knowledge I have working in journalism as come from Hilary.

Hilary has always been way ahead of his time journalistically, and in other ways as well. His work in documentary filmmaking has yet to be fully recognized or appreciated for what it means in the way of permanently archiving the lives of great Kenyan leaders. He may be celebrating the sort of birthday that implies it is time for him to retire. But if that time ever comes, be assured Hilary leaves a journalistic legacy that deserves study and emulating by other up-and-coming Kenyans who would wish to hold a candle to this ‘guka’ of the Kenyan Media.