Friday, 15 December 2017


                                                               From Beatrice Wanjiku's Immortality series 2010


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 12, 2017)

Red Hill Gallery’s Hellmuth Rossler-Musch has been collecting East African art since the 1980s. In relative terms that is ‘early’ since this was when contemporary Kenyan art was just beginning to take off.

                     Hellmuth with Peterson Kamwathi at Red Hill explaining technique for creating his Untitled (Bulls) painting
There had been artists working around the region earlier than that. This was especially true in Uganda where Margaret Trowell had started her art school in the 1930s. Around that same time, Kamba carvers were being enlisted to create ‘souvenir’ animal carvings that were commonly denigrated with the name ‘curios’, not art.
But by the 1950s, the late Samwel Wanjau was in his prime and carving guns for the Mau Mau Freedom Fighters who were waging war against British colonialism. It was during those days, deep in the Aberdare forest that Wanjau the elder developed his skills as a sculptor.

Three of Wanjau’s sculptures belong to one of Hellmuth’s collector friends who asked that Red Hill include them in the currently ‘Eclectic’ Exhibition. Wanjau is best remembered for his larger-than-life wooden sculptures. The three at Red Hill are miniatures by comparison. Still they are lovely examples of Wanjau’s sculptural work in stone.
A good number of the artworks by the eight Kenyan artists in the Eclectic exhibition are ‘NFS’ or not for sale. Others (like Wanjau’s) are for sale but for prices only known ‘On Request’. And a few, like those of Gor Soudan have a price tag on them. So there’s a bit of ambiguity to the Red Hill show. But that should not deter anyone from going to see it, especially as it features art by some of Kenya’s finest, namely Peterson Kamwathi, Beatrice Wanjiku, Sebastian Kiarie, Justus Kyalo, Gor Soudan, Paul Onditi, Onyis Martin and Wanjau.

Eclectic is an appropriate name for the exhibition, but not just because some of the art is for sale while some is not. Some of the works feel like a walk down memory lane. That is true of the Justus Kyalo painting which the artist created when he was working in a more semi-abstract style. Two paintings by Beatrice Wanjiku also have that wonderfully reminiscent feel of having been created when she was working on her ‘Immortality’ series from around 2010. Even Paul Onditi’s untitled Smokey (apparently trekking through Kenyan history) collage is from an earlier time. It’s also one of Onditi’s most multi-layered paintings. It’s also one of the finest that I have seen from his Smokey series.

And even Gor Soudan’s etchings on rice paper are from an earlier time. Gor wasn’t at the exhibition opening but Hellmuth recalls that the rice paper etchings (topped with etched charcoal) were done by Gor “either in Japan [where he’d been doing at art residency] or soon after his return.” Either way, they were made around 2014 when he was experimenting with techniques and media that is different from what he’s doing now.
Finally, there are a few works in the Eclectic show that have never been exhibited before. Sebastian Kiarie’s ‘Economic Migrants’ may have been shown once before way back in 2005, either at RaMoMa or Banana Hill Gallery. Onyis Martin’s prints, I believe, have never been exhibited before since they seem to be fresh off the press.
But the one that has certainly never been shown before (because Hellmuth and Erica went all the way to the artist’s studio to get it) is Peterson Kamwathi’s ‘Protesters’. And because the Rossler-Musch have grown quite attached to the work, it’s in the NFS category.

Nonetheless, one should not be deterred from heading up to Red Hill just because this particular charcoal and pastel painting by Kamwathi is not for sale. It’s well worth a good look, as is the other painting by Kamwathi which is hanging at the other end of the gallery.
The Untitled piece (that I prefer to call the Bulls) is for sale. But even if you don’t have big bucks to buy this beautiful ‘early’ work by one of Kenya’s most acclaimed artists, I say this one is even more worthy of the trek up towards Limuru to Hellmuth and his wife Erica’s place.
Kamwathi only created a few paintings using the painstakingly precise technique of mono-print on glass and canvas. When one looks carefully at the work, he or she will be able to see all 272 miniature squares (17 across times 16 top-to-bottom) that the artist carefully aligned together (rather like a painterly quilt) to create this exceptional work. It’s a piece that is more overtly political than much of what Kamwathi does today (which is ever-changing, ever-experimental).
Created between 2002 and 2003, right when Kenya was going through a major political transition (Daniel arap Moi had resigned and Mwai Kibaki recently elected). The political arena was opening up such that bulls (like those in his painting) were wrestling for power. The work is a prize that I personally would love to keep. But since it’s one of those works the price of which can only be garnered ‘on request’, I already know it’s beyond my means.
But if one is keen on Kamwathi’s art, then I recommend you get up to Red Hill before January 23rd when the exhibition will close. Otherwise, the Gallery will be open throughout the holidays, including Christmas, Hanukah and New Year’s.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Kaafiri Kariuki's Multi-layered Symbolic Surrealism

                                                  Kaafiri Kariuki at his November 2017 exhibition at Banana Hill Art Gallery
A review of Kaafiri's May 2012 one-man exhibition at Nairobi National Museum is coming soon. In the meantime, i'm including the review i wrote of an earlier exhibition that Kaafiri had in 2009 which got published in July '09 in the Daily Nation. The 2012 review will appear here shortly, after it gets published in Business Daily.

Kaafiri Kariuki has ART-RITIS

Published in 2009 Daily Nation, Nairobi

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (re-posted December 15, 2017)

Long before Mungiki gave dreadlocks a bad name, Kaafiri Kariuki wore them with pride and aplomb and as a trademark of his free-wheeling rasta spirit.
 Kaafiri Kariuki in May 2012 during his most recent one-man exhibition at Nairobi Museum. Pix by Marta Obiegla

Having cultivating a taste for rastafari life from his chief mentor and rehab coach, a head librarian at Egerton University that Kaafiri refers to only as ‘The Beast’, the Kenyan musician-turned-visual artist has let his hair grow without a trim since 1993. That was the year his life got turned round and art became more than a passion; it became a lifestyle and a top priority.

“I got ‘art-ritis’,” he told The Daily Nation during the last days of his “Africa Resurrect” one-man show at the French Cultural Centre in mid-July; meanwhile his “Dancing Pen” exhibition has been extended at RaMoMa Gallery in Parklands until the end of this month.

Prior to Kaafiri’s discovery of his affinity for the visual arts, particularly painting, drawing and sculpture, he had fancied his heavy metal guitar music would not just make him a star: he planned on becoming a Kenyanized clone of Jimi Hendrix! In his wildest dreams, he even imagined himself a Kenyan cousin to Elvis Presley.

But careless living and bad blood between himself and fellow musicians led to his rapid flight from a degenerate Dandora music scene in 1991 and return to his mother’s upcountry home in Nyahururu.

Fortunately, that was when Kaafiri met the Beast, discovered that he, like his mentor, had a genuine talent for painting, drawing and even portraiture. And once he got through that first ‘cold turkey’ phase of his rehabilitation, Kaafiri began to meet people who saw him first as a dread-headed rasta-man and then as a gifted artist with all sorts of latent talents which were in the process of rapidly coming to light. 

Among those who first saw Kaafiri’s untapped potential were Europeans, first a German and then a French man. The German introduced him to the mother of Bob Marley who asked him to paint a large portrait of her son (6 meters by 3 meters) which he did. Sometime later, the French man took him to France on a Lezart International Art workshop, Kaafiri being the only Kenyan artist involved.

Admitting that art has transformed his life, Kaafiri says his experience hasn’t been a breeze since he began painting. On the contrary, once the German, Dieter Batsch bought him paints and canvas, he also introduced Kaafiri to a local artists group with whom he shared all his paints. “I was left with nothing apart from my sketchbooks and a pen,” Kaafiri recalls.

But this was a blessing in disguise since he then had to resort to something he did really well, which is drawing. “That is when the ‘Dancing Pen’ was born,” he said. “Around 1997.”
 Kaafiri's African Resurrection drawing with his Dancing Pen became the front page of all my doctoral presentations on Globalizing Kenyan Culture. See the globe, Africa rising at the center, the scarabs from ancient Egypt symbolic of Africa's great past, and the children on their way to school symbolic of the future.

His one-man show at FCC as well as his contribution to a group exhibition at Ramoma celebrate more than a decade for Kaafiri with his dancing pen. “All I could do was draw in my sketch books, hoping that one day I would get paints to transfer my ideas to canvas with coloured paints.”

But before that happened, Kaafiri met a Japanese couple who insisted on buying his two sketchbooks which were filled with his intricate and multi-layered drawings. Their purchase was a life saver for Kaafiri who was practically penniless at the time.

But life has been looking up for Kaafiri ever since he came to appreciate his talent for drawing, and not just painting. Indeed, it is the delicately drawn details of his work, as well as the intricate puzzle parts of his art, that suggests a depth of insight into the contemporary African experience that few local artists express. For while Kaafiri now uses colour in most of his paintings, he still relies on imagery that has a story-telling impact.

He’s not afraid to portray poverty, prostitution and polygamy in his art. He’s also inclined to convey the contradictions of African life in his work—the huge gap between the rich and the poor, the urban elite and the impoverished peasantry. He even conveys a clear vision of how Africa is still bound to the West by inequitable neocolonial relations.

So while Kaafiri may be mistaken for a Kenyan artist who simply paints colourful pictures, what is more interesting to me about his work is the political undercurrents that emerge subtly in his art, currents that convey a depth and sensitivity on the artist’s part that one can appreciate.

Before the end of July, Kaafiri’s art will also be on display at Sipper’s Restaurant in Hurlingham. “I’d like to share my art with local people who may not make it to the galleries but who can appreciate visual art just the same.”

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Thursday, 14 December 2017


By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Before Chebet Mutai founded Wazawazi and started making high-styled leather bags, she was a trained economist who worked as a consultant at the World Bank.
“It was while I was at the World Bank that I saw that Africa needed more entrepreneurs and more manufacturing to solve some of our continent’s major problems, like unemployment among our youth,” says Chebet who became an entrepreneur herself in 2012.
She’s been on a learning curve ever since. Initially, she went into fashion design. But it didn’t take her long to realize the way she really wanted to go was into specializing in high-styled leather bags.
“I design all my bags,” she told Business Daily. But beyond the designs, Chebet knew she would need to set up a workshop of her own. At first, her bags were made in her house. But gradually, as interest in her designs picked up, she realized she’d need a bigger place.
It took some time for Chebet to find that space. But then friends introduced her to the Jamhuri Showgrounds where there were vacant spaces that seemed vast. They had high ceilings and plenty of room for the sort of set up she hoped to establish as her business grew.
By then, her brand name, Wazawazi had been born and her branded bags were breaking into the local leather goods market in a big way.
“I made up the name ‘wazawazi’ using two Kiswahili words,” she explains. “It basically means ‘open-minded’ since waza means ‘to think’ and wazi means ‘to be open’.”
Being ‘open-minded’ is the way Chebet feels more people ought to be. It’s also the way she sees increasing numbers of young Africans thinking about what they want to do and be in the wider world today.
“I’d also like the world to be open-minded enough to recognize and appreciate where Africa is going because modern Africans are moving fast and setting trends that are exciting and innovative,” she adds.
Currently, Wazawazi makes everything from leather backpacks and clutch bags to change purses and laptop or tablet leather cases.
But one thing Wazawazi is definitely not, emphasizes Chebet, is a leather tannery. “There are plenty of excellent tanneries in Kenya already. It’s from them that we get our leather and then create our bags.”
When Chebet went into business, she initially promoted her bags by word of mouth. That had worked well for the first couple of years, especially as her former World Bank friends have become some of her best clients.
But she no longer counts on casual contacts. Instead, she’s found it’s quite useful to attend trade fairs and commercial conferences where she can meet people, particularly those who can help her distribute her bags and establish broader, more global networks. Thus far, she’s attended trade fairs everywhere from Hong Kong and Frankfurt to Las Vegas and New York.
But as keen as she is for Waziwazi to go global, Chebet is also concerned about addressing some of the challenges she identified in the region way back when she was at World Bank.
Issues like training of young people in entrepreneurship and helping to eradicate unemployment are still close to her heart. Her workshop is one arena where she’s doing what she can for the youth who come to her looking for work.
Just a year ago, Chebet also opened a Wazawazi shop in Nairobi’s Valley Arcade. It is from there that she wants to do more than just sell her stylish bags.
“I’d like the shop to be a space where creativity can flourish, where other artists can bring their artistic expressions, be they in the shape of visual art, jewelry, music, fashion or even books,” she says.
“I’d like that space to serve fellow storytellers, since I feel the time has come for Africans to share their stories, and not for others to tell our stories for us.”
To her, the region is moving fast into the future and the rest of the world isn’t necessarily aware of how enlightened, progressive and pace-setting young Africans are.
“That’s why we need to be the ones to tell our stories of modern Africa.” Ultimately, that’s what Chebet wants ‘Wazawazi’ to be and do.


                           At Paa ya Paa, Graffiti artist Swift Elegwa painte on mabati fence erected by land-grabbers


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 3rd, 2017)
Paa ya Paa’s End-of-Year Piano Recital by the students of Phillda Njau was set to be a humble but happy affair. But almost by accident, the Sunday afternoon recital turned into a rousing jam session and ‘reunion’ of the band that Phillda helped to start several years ago. The Bush Bach Ensemble was represented that day by Phillda on piano and several members of this innovative Afro-classical group that hadn’t been on stage together for over a year.
The students performing that day were mainly from two neighborhood groups that help young Kenyans who had been ‘down on their luck’ before they met Molly Stern of the King’s Kids Village or Amy Crowley of the Ahadi Boys Centre.
Phillda had reached out to both groups a little over a year ago, offering to teach as many of their children as might want to learn to play piano.
“Many more of our kids had come [for lessons] initially, but only a few stuck with it,” said Jim Christie who, with his wife Sue, volunteer at King’s Kids Village, which is an orphanage situated down the road from Paa ya Paa.
Nonetheless, the two who performed on Sunday, Andrew Hazina and Matthew Wanje, were among the most confident pianists of the day. Andrew not only performed the Kenya National Anthem. He also played portions of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. Meanwhile, Matthew played Christmas carols and one secular piece.
There were four of Phillda’s students from Ahadi Boys. Ironically, three were boys, namely Daniel Njeru, Njuguna Lisandro and Austin Onyango. Meanwhile, the fourth was a girl, Olivia Natalia Wangeci Gitonga. All gave brief but sweet renditions of either Christmas carols, anthems or prayers.
And all the aspiring musicians were quietly accompanied by Phillda who enriched their music with full sets of chords and professional playing.
For the final piece of their performance, Phillda led four of her students in playing a piece by Beethoven which he had written for five pianos.
“When we started out we just had one piano at Paa ya Paa, but friends have shared what they could. And Louis Duval, our dear friend donated a keyboard to us,” says Phillda, who became one of the five on piano as the quintet played Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise.’
It was a fitting ‘grand finale’ for the recital. But the day was hardly done. Phillda introduced the other three members of the Bush Bach Ensemble who had made it to PYP that day. She explained that she together with Michel Ongaro on flute and percussion, Kaboge Chagala on African drums and Grandmaster Masese on the obhokano (Kisii name for the eight-string lyre), were only going to perform one piece.
But the audience didn’t allow them to stop after one. This innovative experimental group combined Western classical sounds with indigenous African rhythms, instruments and improvised sounds. The combination is unique and Bush Bach wasn’t able to stop performing until the audience allowed.
The group themselves were also quite pleased to be back together and before their performance was done, they vowed to stage another live performance sometime in the New Year.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 13, 2017)

As we head toward Christmas, Hanukkah and the new year, theatre lovers have just seen the three best holiday productions complete their runs on various stages in Nairobi.
Grease at Kenya National Theatre, Ali Baba at Braeburn Theatre and The Nutcracker ballet at both KNT and Braeburn all had memorable finale performances.
Last weekend was also a time when Christmas music was alive, vibrant and soul-inspiring at both The Elephant in Lavington and in churches like All Saints Cathedral.
So what remains in the way of theatre this weekend is secular storytelling which has nothing to do with holiday festivities. (It seems the expectation has been that people would disappear from town by mid-month).
At Alliance Francaise, Heartstrings won’t let you down if you are looking for loads of laughs, although ‘Nobody is leaving’ is slightly more inane and illogical than most Heartstrings shows.
It’s all about a wealthy single father (Nick Ndeda) who’s on his way to work and to banking his business’s cash when his only daughter Subsconsta (Cindy Kahuha)  informs him her boyfriend Shawn is arriving today from the UK where he’s fresh from Oxford, Harvard and his supposed business interests in oil!
Dad is delighted and interprets ‘boyfriend’ to mean fiancĂ©. Thus, he drops his previous plans and starts preparing for his girl’s wedding. Aided by his trusty (but zany) house man (Victor Nyaata), he orders food, chairs, sofas and loads of other items fit to impress family members, but not her friends.
He’s out of step with millennials, it would seem. But he tries to be polite when two strangers (Cyprian Osoro and Jane Wangari) show up. We assume they are Subsconsta’s friends although the girl is peculiarly silent in the face of her father’s flurry.
One cannot tell whether Cindy is playing passive on purpose (because the story is designed that way) or if she’s been poorly directed or if she simply cannot act. But her passivity is peculiar. So is the fact that she doesn’t question the identity of the two strangers since they are clearly not family relations although they pretend to be.
What’s also strange is the way, after the taxi driver arrives without Shawn (who’s apparently been ‘lost’ at one of the petrol stations), Subconsta feels compelled to tell her dad the driver is Shawn. There was no need for the ruse. Indeed, it seems contrived simply to advance the storyline. Of course, the driver is boorish, loud and behaves nothing like an attentive fiancĂ©.
But then the crooks make their move. This is when the real fun begins, especially when a cop friend (Mark Otieno) of dad’s arrives on the scene, greets the guests and discretely goes. He seems hoodwinked by gun-wielding crooks who are essentially holding the family hostage. But then there’s a twist or two just before the show ends with bang, in Heartstrings’ inimitable style.
‘Nobody is leaving’ runs from tonight (6:30 and 8:30pm) through Sunday.
Meanwhile, at Daystar Valley Road (irrespective of the students strike), Prevail Arts are bringing back ‘What Happens in the Night’. They had to bring back this gripping murder mystery since it had only been staged once last month and that wasn’t enough to satisfy audiences.
Written, directed and produced by Martin Kigondu, the cast remains strong, with Chichi Seii, Nick Ndeda (fresh from a sterling performance in Grease), Shiviske Shivisi and Salim Gitau. It might even be a stronger performance Bilal Mwaura replaces Mourad Sadat. But you’ll have to get to the 5pm show this Saturday to find out for yourself.
Finally, one reason the theatre may be slightly dry this holiday season is because many of our best actors and actresses have shifted from the stage to work in film and television.
Quite a few of them got awarded last Saturday night during the seventh annual Kalasha TV and Film awards. Among them are Catherine Kamau, Martin Githinji, Frank Kimani, Wanjiku Njoroge and Anthony Ndungu, just to name a few. Congratulations to them all!


BY COOPER RUST (shared via email 2016)

Joel Kioko comes from a slum in Nairobi called Kuwinda just between Karen and Kibera. He was brought up together with his sister by his single mother who is working as a kindergarten assistant in a low income Kenyan government school. 

Joel started dancing with Cooper Rust in January 2014, after an older student of Cooper, Annabel Shaw, conducted an Outreach dance program at a Kenyan government school and saw him leap across the floor.  He was 13 then and had not had any contact with classical ballet before. There was no dance technique, but his natural ability and passion for movement was blatantly obvious.  

That week Cooper invited him to join one of her classical ballet classes with the parents of Annabel, Tonya and Nigel Shaw, offering to pay for the tuitions.  Three months later he participated in the Royal Academy of Dance Grade 3 exams and received a 73% mark which is a “Merit”.

The following year Joel advanced to Grade 4 & 5 at the DANCE CENTRE KENYA where Cooper Rust is the Artistic Director. In his RAD exams he received distinctions in both grades, with the highest scores of the entire school). He started dancing Pas de Deux with 12-year old partner Lucile Plumbe.

In the summer of 2015, he went to the University of South Carolina summer program, where he was put in the second to highest level and given multiple opportunities to do lead roles in their end of summer performance.
4 months after that Cooper Rust set Kenya's first ever full length Nutcracker Ballet, with him dancing the Nutcracker/Sugar Plum Cavalier in the Kenyan National Theatre.

Joel has now been accepted on full tuition and boarding scholarship at the Cincinnati Ballet for a summer program the company hosts for up and coming talents.  He will leave Kenya on June 10th 2016 and stay in Cincinnati for five weeks.  Following that program he will travel to South Carolina, where he will spend two more weeks training with the University of South Carolina Dance Conservatory.  He has already been awarded a full training scholarship with the Carolina Ballet for an entire year, which he will start following the summer programmes.

From Cooper Rust:
“As far as his academics go, I realised many months ago that Joel is a visual learner and the way he was being taught in the Kenyan system simply wasn't working.  Although he is one of the brightest people I have ever seen in the studio, he has a very difficult time with basic reading comprehension and math.  I have since requested and received funds from the American organisation Artists for Africa to be able to homeschool him and hire a private tutor to work with him four days a week.  He receives French lessons from Christiane Plumbe  (the Brookhouse French teacher) and piano lessons from Cathy Sampson (the head of music from Nairobi West).  Neither of the teachers are asking for any fees.  He is now living with me full time and we get up every morning to start his studies at 7:00.  It is my intention that he will continue with this program for the year living in South Carolina so as to catch up and join a normal American school for 11th and 12th Grade beginning in 2017.”