Wednesday, 18 January 2017

NAIROBI THEATRE STARTS BUZZING IN FEBRUARY


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted January 19, 2017}


Walter Sitati is one of Kenya’s most prolific playwrights and producers, having written and staged shows like ‘All I ever wanted’, ‘A Kiss through the Veil’, ‘What’s Your Price?’, ‘The Other Life’ and ‘Sins and Secrets’ in the last few years. They’ve all been staged with the theatre troupe, Hearts of Art that he formed back in 2012. And for me, they’ve all been edgy and dramatic, sometimes satiric and sassy, but always relevant to Kenyans’ every day experience.

He’s been out of the limelight for the last few months, but he hasn’t been resting by any means. Instead, he’s been busy writing and rehearsing several projects scheduled to take off in the coming days and weeks.

For instance, in February, Walter and his Hearts of Art team will shift from stage to TV set where they’ll start filming the first of 13 episodes of his new comedy called ‘Simple Man’ which will star Joe Kinyua (whose most memorable role last year was playing Max in the August Wilson’s award winning play, ‘Fences’, a role that Denzel Washington performed first on Broadway). The series will all be filmed in Nairobi and soon thereafter shown on Mnet’s.

Then in March, Sitati and Hearts of Art will head over to Kampala where they will stage ‘All I ever wanted’ at the La Bonita Theatre.

In April, they’ll be back in Nairobi, performing another new script by Sitati, this one being a satire on police corruption entitled ‘Necessary Madness’ at Kenya National Theatre. It should be fascinating as Sitati says it’s a story told through the eyes of a local cop.

Finally, in May, Sitati will bring his HOA players home to Alliance Francaise where they will perform in ‘The Mercy Seat’ which is likely to be rather dark since the playwright himself describes his latest play as ‘a tragedy’ focused on the inequalities that exist in Kenya and around the world.

Meanwhile, this Saturday the Point Zero coffee house (just next to the Nairobi Gallery) is launching its ‘Book Café’ featuring The Performance Collective which will do readings and discuss Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s award-winning book, Dust. The writer herself will be on hand to be part of the discussion and to sign copies of her book which will also be available for sale.

Blending delicious coffee with good books is a dream come true for both the Performance Collective co-founder Mshai Mwangola – Gitonga and for the Point Zero Coffee queens, Wangeci Gitobu and Andrea Moraa.

The launch of the Book Café, which Andrea and Wangeci hope to continue on a monthly basis, starts at 11am tomorrow and will run until early afternoon.

And just down the road (Koinange Street) from Point Zero Coffee, the Alliance Francaise is starting off the New Year by hosting a number of exciting productions starting in early February.

On the 11th the Friends Ensemble will open in the Wangari Maathai Auditorium in ‘I’ll be back before midnight’ which sounds like a murder mystery to me; but then maybe not.

Then on the 18th John Sibi-Okumu produces and directs Davina Leonard in the one-woman play entitled ‘Every Brilliant Thing’. Davina was last seen in Silvia Cassini’s award-winning play, ‘A Man like You’ which will hopefully be re-stated later this year following its successful staging at two different off-Broadway theatres in New York City.

Also at Alliance, Sammy Mwangi and Heartstrings Entertainment are starting off this year’s theatre season with a bang-on comedy called ‘Nothing but the Truth’.

And finally, from upcountry we just got news that The Theatre Company has a brand new studio up at Karichota, courtesy of Keith Pearson’s team of artistic builders and the German Embassy. Another dream come true for The Theatre Company who’ll use the studio as a rehearsal space much like the one they’ve got in Spring Valley just behind StoryMoja, and also a place where yoga classes are taught to both thespians and other visitors to Karichota, a beautiful site just next to the awe-inspiring Mount Kenya.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Margaretta's brief Bio for BD Life


Margaretta wa Gacheru


Wearing paper bead necklace by Sanaa Gateja, fitted by Evans Ngure (photo by Ngure) 1.16.17

has been writing about the arts in Kenya for many decades, starting at Hilary Ng’weno’s Weekly Review and Nairobi Times in the 1970s. Holding a Ph.D in Sociology from Loyola University Chicago in the US and master’s degrees from University of Nairobi in Literature and Northwestern University in Journalism as well as from Loyola (Sociology) and National Louis University, Chicago in Education. Author of ‘The Transformation of Contemporary Kenyan Art (1960-2010), she has been writing for BD Life since early 2012.

(posted January 17, 2017)
M.at Business Daily office just in front of the boss's office, Rapuro Ochieng.(Photos by Diana Ngila)

Brother Tom & me doing a selfie in Evanston last Saturday, January 21st. meanwhile, millions were demonstrating around the world wearing pussy caps and calling for resistance to the new regime in Washington, DC. I am blessed to have Tom as my big bro! There isn't a sweeter guy!

POETRY DRAMATISED WITH LIVE MUSIC AND DANCE


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 1.13.2017)


Martin Kigundo took on a nearly daunting task when he agreed to pick up on Joan Sikand’s proposal to try staging poetry from her three published poetry books.

But as Martin has worked with some of Kenya’s finest directors in the past and learned a great deal in the process -- thespians like Millicent Ogutu, Gilbert Lukalia and Keith Pearson, the founder of the Prevail Arts Company chose to go for it, but to get a little help from his friends.


Joan apparently hadn’t given him much guidance on what she wanted the production to convey thematically since it’s only the title ‘Peace and Love’ that offers a hint about what the show is about.


This must have given Martin even more of a challenge since her poetry (totaling around 300 poems) spans a broad range of topics, from death and unrelenting despair to joy, love and faith
.

The range of ideas that she explores is no problem; it’s the bridge between these extremes that wasn’t easy to find, feel and follow in Martin’s musical production of ‘Peace and Love’, which Prevail produced and staged last weekend at The Tribe Hotel.

But a bridge and an overarching theme are what I feel was absolutely essential for us to fully appreciate Kigondu’s ambitious production and Mrs Sikand’s evocative poetry
.


Perhaps the director didn’t select the right poems or the poet herself didn’t write poetry that could have provided more autobiographical information. Such data could have helped us understand more about where the poetry was coming from.


It would have been useful, for instance to be told, either in the program (or ‘theatre bill’) or in a specially prepared prelude so as to clarify that the production was autobiographical.

Possibly, the poet didn’t want us to be clear that the verses were by and about a brilliant young woman whose parents were fresh from North Korea when they arrived in the States; that she was a first generation American who was sharing her feelings in poetry written over a period of 20 or 30 years or more.


Either way, we were presented with abstracted expressions of raw feelings that we wanted to understand from whence they came. In other words, we needed to have a clearer sense of context to figure out how her initially explosive and painful poems fit in with the contemporary dance (which was gracefully performed), the live music (invoked with beautiful vocals, flute and percussive sounds) and the show overall.


Martin enlisted a lovely dancer, Brigetta Ikwara; but as much as he must have meant for her movement to dramatize the poems, her performance seemed detached from the poetry. That’s not to say her dancing wasn’t delightful to watch. It was! But it didn’t quite serve as the moving thread that wove the whole show together.


He also enlisted marvelous musicians to perform songs selected by Joan that came straight out of the 1970s. Among them were many of my own favorites, especially ones by Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bob Marley and even the Beatles. They were sung soulfully by Serro Hulda, Lucas, Checkmate Mido and Ayrosh
(although I’d wished the intro music had been used less as a ‘curtain raiser’ and more as a situating instrument aimed at giving us a musical overview of what we were about to see.)

Nonetheless, those sweet tunes didn’t necessarily help us understand how we went from poems conveying painful anger and dark despair to those reflecting peace, transcendent contemplation and love.



Finally, Martin enlisted three outstanding performers, Nick Ndeda, Angela Mwandanda, and Laura Ekumbo to dramatize Joan’s poetry. This they did with sensitivity and depth of feeling. They managed to express all of those powerful, and often philosophically-based ideas and emotions.


In fact, the trio portrayed inner aspects of the woman that we’d never known or seen before, giving us a deeper appreciation for Joan the poet and artist.

Given Martin has 300 of her poems to work with, perhaps the next time the show is staged, he’ll be able to find more verses that offer less abstracted imagery and more contextual terms so we can get a clearer sense of Mrs Sikand’s message and the meaning of her poetry.

Monday, 16 January 2017

SHAKESPEARE’S VERONA IS A GEM OF A CAR-LESS CITY

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted January 10, 2017)

No one really knows why William Shakespeare set thirteen of his 38 plays in Italy. Some say he never even visited the country and only read Italian novellas and listened to sailors who’d been there and brought back colorful tales of tragedy, political intrigue and romance.

Even more mysterious is why he set three of those Italian thirteen in Verona: There was ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, a romantic comedy and supposedly his very first play; then came ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the romantic tragedy that left its most indelible mark on the city and caused Verona to now be known as the world’s leading ‘City of Love’; and finally came ‘Taming of the Shrew’, yet another lopsided love story.

I’d love to say I went to Verona over the recent holiday season because I’m a serious Shakespeare buff and so was dying to see some of the sites that appeared in the British Bard’s three plays. But I can’t.

Instead, I was simply a hapless tourist keen to see and learn about as much of the country’s history, culture and people in the little time that I had.

So Verona was relatively close to my family’s home in Vicenza, and with one of our members absolutely committed to seeing sites from the Bard’s most famous love story, we agreed to drive to that picturesque Medieval city in less than an hour.

Our main destination was Juliet’s family home, the ‘Stalla del Cappello’, which is an old stone tower house, built between 1200 and 1300; it’s also the name from which Shakespeare derived ‘Capuleti’, the name of Juliet’s noble family.

Our specific destination was ‘Juliet’s Balcony’, which tourists have been flocking to from all over the world for the last few centuries.

I personally marvel at such dedication to seeing the simulation of an event that probably only transpired in Shakespeare’s play (or in one of those Italian novellas). It happened beneath Juliet’s balcony as Romeo stealthily stood in the family’s courtyard and professed his undying love for Juliet.

It’s a touching moment in the play and in all of its movie iterations as well. But one probably needs to be a fully-fledged romantic (which I am not) to feel compelled to not only come to Verona to stand in the Cappello’s courtyard, but also to pay six euros just to get in a long line so you can have ten seconds (20 at most) standing on Juliet’s balcony. It’s just enough time to take a few selfies and have a family member, friend or sweetheart snap a photograph of you on that world-renowned balcony.

I got cajoled into doing it with a relative who was delirious about getting her ‘Juliet moment’ recorded for consumption of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Fortunately, I was fascinated with the Medieval architecture and the bronze busts both of Juliet (by Nereo Costantin) and of the Bard himself. There were also a number of 18th and 19th century paintings inspired by Shakespeare’s immortal love affair.

By the time I got my brief moment on the balcony, I was totally unprepared. I didn’t want to waste time for all the people standing behind me impatiently waiting for their 15 seconds of fame; but I also did know my family was standing below, primed to take my photo as I peeked out precariously from what was called a ‘balcony’ but was actually a heavy stone sarcophagus that looked like it might break off that ancient wall anytime.

So since I couldn’t see my people, I went ahead and took quick photos of the view from where I stood. Then I quickly climbed back onto the antique wooden floor and in no time, we were back down to solid ground.

Juliet’s House is actually more than just the balcony. It’s actually a museum that for centuries has compelled people, including writers like Charles Dickens, to make pilgrimages to Verona, just to visit Juliet’s balcony as well as her ‘tomb’ at the Monastery of San Francesco. Now a Franciscan convent, the ‘tomb’ is where Romeo found Juliet drugged, took her for dead, and finally decided he couldn’t live without her and killed himself.

Many people also try to visit Romeo’s family home. The Montecchi’s place is a rustic brick castle which is not open to the public, so we didn’t even try to stop by. It was just enough for see the Balcony, walk through Verona’s bustling Christmas fare, and stop for a quick Cappuccino before heading back home.

IMMORTALITY REVEALED BY FIVE KENYAN ARTISTS AT BANANA HILL


FIVE ‘INSPIRED’ KENYAN ARTISTS’ WORKS AT BANANA HILL

BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (margaretta.gacheru@gmail.com)

Banana Hill Art Gallery is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of works by five Kenyan artists entitled ‘Nairobi Inspirations’.

It may not matter that three are living and two are not. What’s moreimportant is that all five have already assured their immortal status simply by having creating stunning works of art which are putting Kenyan art on the global map in the international art world.

Michael Soi, Patrick Mukabi and Thom Ogonga as well as the late Ashif Malamba and Omosh Kindeh all are Kenyan artists of import, artists who each have a body of inspired works that merits both local and global attention.

Nonetheless, the assembling of these five in one exhibition seemed somewhat anomalous to me. It’s wonderful for any commemoration of Omosh and Ashif, two artists whose originality inspired many young artists before their demise in 2015. To lose them both within the period of months was a big blow to the Kenyan art scene. So whenever there’s an opportunity to remember Omosh who’d been part of the Kuona artists community for many years, and Ashif who was also a cornerstone in the Maasai Mbili artists collective, I feel it’s a privilege to pause and bear witness to their art which continues to delight and deepen our appreciation of their creative genius.

Certainly, the other three living artists whose works are on show at Banana Hill are equally gifted and equal in artistic stature to Ashif and Omosh. But as a local lady, I associate Mukabi with his Dust Depo Art Studio. And I tend to think of Thom and Soi as ex-Kuona colleagues who’ve had several stellar exhibitions at the recent past based on the satirical theme of ‘Sex in the City’.

So how were the five assembled on the same platform? What was the unifying factor that could explain these specific artists having their works shown together? To get clarity on this issue, I asked the Gallery’s managing director Shine Tani to help me understand how he came up with this interesting ensemble of artists.

Shine quickly introduced me to Mugo Mutothori who’s not only the curator of ‘Nairobi Inspirations’; he’s also the founder of Afro Art East Africa, an online platform that he launched several years back when he was still affiliated with University of California at Berkeley.

Mugo couldn’t have come at a more propitious moment to make his curatorial mark on the local scene, since he and his website effectively illustrate the media concept of convergence. That is to say he’s not only starting to curate art exhibitions; he’s also writing about East African artists (albeit mainly Kenyans). And he’s also doing video interviews of them, thus offering local artists global exposure over the internet and through social media.

So Mugo and his Afro Art East Africa is essentially why this otherwise surprising combination of Kenyan artists are cohabiting the gallery. Mugo has a vantage point that doesn’t necessarily situate artists at this studio site or that. As such, the five are his ‘take’ on what constitutes ‘Nairobi Inspirations’ right now.

For me what’s also special about this show is that a number of the works haven’t been exhibited locally before despite their not being brand new.

For instance, Michael Soi noted that the monumental painting of his that people see first as they enter the Gallery was painted back in 2013.

Speaking with BD Life on the evening of the show’s opening, Soi added that this one and several others of his had never been exhibited publicly in Kenya before. Soi said he’d shared them with Mugo around that same time so that Afro Art East Africa could exhibit (and potentially sell) them while he was still in the States.

Fortunately, Mugo brought these pieces with him when he returned from the US, which meant Soi was reunited with works he hadn’t seen for several years.

“I’ll be happy to take them home with me after the exhibition,” said Soi clearly pleased that his artistic offspring will be back in his studio very soon.

Several of Thom Ogonga’s paintings were also being exhibited for the first time in Kenya, including one beautiful work of a woman dressed only in pantaloons. I believe it was nearly shown here once before, but someone somewhere deemed it ‘pornographic’ which I believe it is not.

The Mukabi paintings are classics, as are the works by Omosh and Ashif. So it’s well worth seeing the exhibition which runs up to February 2nd.

Meanwhile, Yony Waite’s charming ‘Controlled Accidents’ exhibition opened Wednesday at Polkadot Gallery, to be reviewed next week.


YONY WAITE OPENS 2017 VISUAL ART SEASON


THE ART OF THE ‘CONTROLLED ACCIDENT’

By margaretta wa gacheru

She’s the grand dame of contemporary Kenyan art, the co-founder (with the late Robin Anderson and David Hart) of the acclaimed (now defunct) Gallery Watatu, and without doubt, she’s the most long-standing Kenyan-American painter around, having arrived in Kenya shortly before the country gained Independence in 1963.

Yony Waite’s ‘Controlled Accidents’ exhibition that opened recently (January 18th) at Polka Dot Gallery in Karen confirmed that this illustrious artist is still going strong. So much so that not all her artworks (most of which were created in the last year) can actually fit into the Polka Dot, one of Nairobi’s sweetest new art galleries.

But gallerist Lara Ray says that’s no problem since she’ll simply rotate some of Yony’s art so the show will expose most of her newest works before the exhibition ends 15th February.

Fortunately, what does fit in (and outside) the gallery are Yony’s panoramic paintings, views of Nairobi National Park as seen from the front porch of her makuti-roofed cottage out at her family’s Athi River ranch.

One artwork that definitely doesn’t fit inside the gallery is a comfy sofa given to her by a friend after a fluke fire in 2013 destroyed her first Athi cottage and studio gallery which had been filled with an exquisite array of paintings practically all of which were consumed in the fire.

Yony’s treated the sofa (including the cushions) as if it were a canvas on which she’s painted a beautiful reclining nude!

It’s not the first time that she’s painted furniture. In her last two exhibitions, (one at Nairobi National Museum in 2015, the other the following year at One Off Gallery) it was the furniture that most emphatically revealed Yony as the inspired artist who can paint, print or draw on any medium, be it paper, canvas, upholstery or wood.

At the Polka Dot, one will also see the woman’s versatility since her subjects range from wildebeests, rhino, zebra and a bull branded with a ‘campaign for nuclear disarmament’ logo to Lamu street scenes and intricate Swahili designs to North American trees and Nairobi street children. What’s more, her work comes in all sizes and shapes so that one can’t help being in awe of this woman who doesn’t simply paint, draw and print beautiful images.

She’s also got a deep-seated political sensibility, especially as it pertains to environmental concerns. One can see it in her branded bull. It’s also apparent in the landscape paintings that she symbolically shredded, but then reassembled by bonding the pieces back together with gold-leaf paint.

Shredding her art suggests that she meant to mimic what’s currently being done to destroy Mother Earth for short-sighted material gain. But then, I imagine the reassembling of her work is also meant to imply there still might be a shred of hope that the planet can be saved, but only if conscientious steps are taken sooner than later.

Her show is a definite chiaroscuro mix of light and shadow, black and white like her Athi River landscapes. Even the title of her show ‘Controlled Accidents’ suggests an antithetical contrast since by definition, accidents cannot be controlled, except perhaps by an artist like Yony who believes “there are no mistakes [accidents] in life and art, only results you didn’t expect.”

One series in her show illustrates that attitude beautifully. She calls it ‘pyro-graphic art’ since inadvertently, three charcoal sketches of nudes that she’d drawn during a Life Drawing class at Polka Dot, got tossed into a post-Christmas fire.

Explaining her story to BD Life, Yony said she didn’t have festive paper to wrap her Christmas gifts, so she used the paper on which she’d sketched the nudes to wrap her presents.

It was while tidying up that the drawings landed in the fire; but Yony managed to retrieve them before they were burned to a crisp.

The papers were partially damaged, but the artist had an eye to see the surprising beauty of the scorched nudes. So she had them framed and included in her show as an illustration of what ‘Controlled Accidents’ actually look like!

Someone other than Yony Waite (who occasionally spells her name as Wa Ite) might have let the ladies burn to a crisp. Others might have despaired since they felt their artwork had been ruined by the incident. But not Yony. Her marvelous imagination allowed her to see and appreciate ‘the results [she] didn’t expect’.

Meanwhile, Paul Onditi will have a solo exhibition opening Saturday, January 28th at One Off Gallery.








Thursday, 12 January 2017

RWANDESE SCULPTOR DISCOVERS HIS OWN CREATIVE CAPACITIES IN KENYA

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (1.12.17)

Bahimba Thaddee Macumi technically qualifies to be called a ‘refugee artist’. He’s certainly a refugee, a Rwandan teacher who didn’t want to be called up by the RPF to go fight the Interhamwe in the DRC in 2000. The trials he incurred between then and when he finally reached Kenya in 2001 were numerous and harrowing. But ultimately, they led Bahimba to make one critically important discovery about himself: it is that in truth he is actually an artist who also happens to be a refugee.

I met the man late in 2016 at Nairobi Racecourse where he stood out like a diamond in stony sea of ordinary rocks. We were attending one of those pre-Christmas craft sales which took about five minutes to navigate, only to find nothing of interest; that is, until I spotted Bahimba’s wooden carvings, furniture and goat-skin carpets. I stopped in my tracks when I saw his wood-relief ‘painting’ clearly patterned after Leonardo di Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’, but carved in a thick rectangle of jacaranda wood and stained a deep, dark burgundy-brown. Besides its being a beautiful replica of the Leonardo’s painting (at least in its alignment of characters), there were a myriad of differences between Bahimba’s work and Leonardo’s not least of which being that the Renaissance artist’s iconic piece is a painting, while Bahimba’s is as much a sculpture as ‘painting’ which he’d carefully carved in wooden relief and so deeply that all the disciples could almost be mistaken for free-standing sculptures, so masterfully has the artist paid careful attention to the smallest detail, even to their toenails and sandals. The other major difference between Leonardo’s painting and Bahimba’s sculpted woodwork is that this African artist has carved his characters, making them all unmistakably African, including Jesus Christ.

His explicit decision to craft Christ and his crew undeniably African is one of the reasons I felt instantly attracted to the artist and his work. But then to hear that he had never sculpted or worked with chisels or carving knives before he’d come to Kenya make the man’s story all the more surprising.

Bahimba admitted he’d loved to draw from the time he was a child, and had even/often been enlisted by his Rwandese headmaster in primary school to illustrate teachers’ points on class blackboards.

It was either fate, divine guidance or coincidence that led Bahimba to the Kivuli Centre early in the new millennium where he fell in with a score of Rwandese and Burundese refugees, all of whom worked as wood carvers in Kivuli’s open-air workshops.

Actually, as he was in flight from his home in southern Rwanda, traveling overland on foot, by bus and even by boat, Bahimba made it to Tanzania to refugee camps near the Kenya border and it was there that he was advised to find friends living not far from Kivuli Centre.

What is amazing however is that once he met countrymen who were wood carvers, they spurred him on to join their ranks.

“They knew somehow that I was good at drawing,” said Bahimba who had actually taught art to children one of those Tanzanian camps. “So they told me since I knew how to draw, it was assured that I could carve as well.”

He took up their challenge, despite never having held a chisel or carving knife before. But he quickly got the hang of it, borrowed a bit of Jacaranda wood and one of the home-made jua kali carving knives, and picked up a plethora of skills as if by osmosis.   

“Nobody really taught me how to care,” he said. “But the one bit of advice I got was never hold the knife with the blade facing my body; always carve away from yourself in case the blade slips and you could make a bloody mess of yourself.”

That was almost 11 years ago, and over time, Bahimba has become a highly skilled master carver. Visiting him at his Kivuli workshop on a day when all his workmates were attending a family funeral, I felt privileged to see the wide range of artistry that he’s created over the years.

His one challenge now is marketing since Bahimba hasn’t taken time to go out a sell himself or his art. His display at the Racecourse was one of his very first days to make the concerted effort to showcase and sell his own exceptional work.

Yet one can find him on Facebook as B.Thaddee.Macumi and he’s also on What’s App, so it’s quite likely that once his incredible story gets out Bahimba’s glorious genius will be recognized as belonging one of East Africa’s finest wood sculptors, a man just beginning to take off on a new and illustrious artistic journey.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

THE HOPE: THAT PHOENIX THEATRE AND KNT DO WELL IN 2017


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted January 12, 2017)

Phoenix Theatre is not dead!

Some theatre watchers might prefer to say ‘Phoenix Theatre is not dead yet,’ which is also true but slightly more cynical a perspective on the theatre’s current situation.

What I feel is important to underscore is that there’s no need to bury Phoenix before they’ve put up a good fight to stay alive and continue giving us great plays like many of the ones we saw in 2016 when the Theatre staged shows like August Wilson’s award winning play, ‘Fences’, The Hitman and Smile Orange among others.

It’s true Phoenix Players are dead, probably deceased on the day James Falkland passed away. It’s also true that Phoenix Theatre has rent payment problems, but I’d say the time has come for theatre lovers to rally in support of Phoenix by at least attending their 2017 shows, starting with ‘Pull the other one,’ a British comedy adapted and directed by Tim King’oo. Scheduled to open in early February, the details are still a bit sketchy since the comedy might offend those who still feel uncomfortable watching or talking about topics like drag queens.

‘Pull the other one’ has one drag queen in the story but she’s got an interesting story and the public might learn a thing or two by watching the show.

Albert still lives with his mother who finds a letter addressed to her son signed by Hillary, who she believes is a woman, up until Hillary shows up.   

More details are forthcoming but just as we saw audiences for Kenya National Theatre shows rise in 2016, we’d like to see the same said about Phoenix Theatre in 2017.

Speaking of KNT, the Theatre’s new CEO Edwin Gichangi hasn’t been in the [hot] seat for long but he’s gotten off to a good start. He’s already started renovating Kenya Cultural Centre’s small theatre (Ukumbi Ndogo), which should be ready for performances very soon.

Mr Gichangi’s also just completed the refurbishing of the Steinway Grand Piano that was donated to KNT back in 1956, not long after the National Theatre opened back in 1952.

Finally, Andrew Lloyd Webb and Tim Rice’s world acclaimed musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, will be staged at the National Theatre right around the Easter weekend. Details as to the casting and directing are still forthcoming but we do know that Mr Gichangi and KNT will be collaborating with Kenya Performing Arts Studio to produce a show that we used to watch almost every other year around either Christmas or Easter. It’s good news that it’s being brought back!  

Monday, 9 January 2017

BRUSH TU ART STUDIO BRANCHES OUT

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (margaretta.gacheru@Gmail.com)


As the Civil Servants bus rolls its way through Buru Buru Phase 1, one can easily pass by house #279 without taking note of the big bold number plate on the brick wall next to the front door.

One wouldn’t guess that inside are five of Kenya’s most inquisitive young artists – four painters and one sculptor who are busy brewing new ideas and reinventing themselves regularly.

Boniface Kimani, a former Principal of Buru Buru Institute of Art and sculptor, is the anomaly of the Brush tu Art Studio (a.k.a. #279) since the collective’s name originally derived from their all being painters.

The group got started with David Thuku (who’s now a Brush tu Art alum, having moved recently to Kuona Trust) calling his former BIFA buddy Michael Musyoka to come help him paint theatre backdrops for schools entering the Kenya Schools Drama Festival.

Soon after, Boniface Maina came on board followed by Waweru Gichuhi; and then sometime later, Elias Mong’ora showed up fresh from Nyeri, having heard that this group of guys was open-minded, gifted and happy to share their skills and a bit of studio space besides.

Several aspiring young artists have passed through the Studio since then, doing ad hoc ‘internships’ to gain artistic insight and inspiration from this generous crew of creatives.

It was around this time that the quartet accepted the fact that their first Phase 1 place was too small.

“We spoke to our landlord and he found [#279] for us,” said Maina whose crew recently celebrated their first anniversary in their new space.

“The landlord also approved of our making minor changes to the house,” Maina added, noting most of their neighbors were families.

Right now, the studio is adding a set of partitions to enable them to accommodate not just the five core artists, but others who will be part of ‘Project Air Brush’ in 2017.

“It’s an artists-in-residency program that we’ve been thinking about for some time, but then when the possibility of designing an international artists program opened up through the Danish Embassy, we went straight to work designing Project Air Brush,” said Maina, adding that Ciku Gichuhi will help administer the program.

It’s only a twelve-month project, but it will enable the studio to run two three-month residencies. “Then in between the two [residencies] we’ll run Workshops on everything from print-making and photography to sculpting and of course, painting.

However, Maina noted the workshops won’t simply rely on the expertise of the current core five. “Instead we’ll be inviting professionals to come in and run some of the workshops,” he added.

Nonetheless, Brush tu Art will continue to serve as a sort of ‘incubator’ for aspiring artists to gain inspiration and grow creatively.

The Studio is by no means the only art centre in Nairobi that’s offering opportunities to young artists, especially those who haven’t had extensive training like the quartet (Maina having graduated from the YMCA Craft Training Centre, Waweru coming from the Technical University of Kenya and Elias a so-called self-taught painter who’s been honing his artistic skills since childhood. Meanwhile, Musyoka came from BIFA as did Kimani who chose to shift from being a BIFA administrator to pursuing his first love, sculpture).

Most notably, Patrick Mukabi has been a source of inspiration and ad hoc arts training to a huge range of local art aspirants. Mukabi began by welcoming young Kenyans to his studio at the Go Down Art Centre, and now, he’s continued that practice at his own Dust Depo Studio next to Kenya Railways Museum. But Mukabi has had both the generosity and the gift to be an excellent art tutor, filling the vacuum left by the Kenya Government’s exclusion of Art from being an ‘examinable’ subject in the national curriculum.

Project Air Brush will combine a similar ‘incubator’ component during those months when the artists-in-residence won’t be the top priority.

The first two non-Kenyan artists in Project Air Brush will arrive in a few days since their three month tenure at the Studio is set to begin in mid-January. Neither are strangers to the Nairobi art scene since we’ve seen their art at sites like Village Market, Banana Hill Gallery and even the Art Space. But Ugandan artists Saad Lukwago and Jude Kasangga will undoubtedly contribute a great deal to the Studio while they are here.

In the meantime, Maina and Gichuhi will be joining Mukabi as well as Nduta Kariuki and Nadia Wamunyu early next month in Lamu at Herbert Menzer’s Painters Festival in Lamu.






Wednesday, 4 January 2017

SPOKEN WORD AND SONG FRESH FROM THE 70s UP TO NOW


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted January 5, 2017)   

Joan Sekand may be best known in Nairobi as an environmental activist, but she’s also a published poet who’s got three collections to her name, one entitled Meditation, another Makonde and the latest simply called Mind.

But when she called on Martin Kigondu, founder of Prevail Productions,
to help her produce and direct a show based on her poetic works, it was he who selected the 25 (out of her 300) poems which now form the basis of ‘Peace and Love,’ the musical, dance and spoken word performance that will be staged for two nights only at The Tribe Hotel, tonight and tomorrow from 7pm.

Dedicated to the memory of the late, great Kenyan actor and former creative director at Phoenix Players, Harry Ebale, who died almost exactly a year ago and who was originally meant to be the producer-director of Joan’s dramatized poetry, Martin says Joan took her time finding someone to replace Harry.

But when she finally called him, she gave Martin free rein to design and devise the production as he wished.

So in addition to his choosing the 25 self-reflective poems and grouping them around such basic themes as life, death and aspirations for the future, Martin also chose the cast, musicians and even the contemporary dancer Brigette Ikwara
whose fluid expression will provide continuity between the themed spoken word performances.

And while the spoken word artists are three, namely Nick Ndeda, Angela Mwandana and Laura Ekundo, the musicians include vocalists Serro Hulda, Lucas Muketha, Angela Tatu and Checkmate Mido
who doubles up on percussion with Ayrosh Collins on guitar.

But as much of the poetry reflects back on her early life, growing up in the Seventies, a child of first generation Korean immigrants, the show is infused with live pop music from those times. The tunes wil include hits by everyone from the Beatles and Bob Marley (Mido-styled) to the Young Bloods and the Fifth Dimension.

But be assured ‘Peace and Love’ is not simply autobiographical since Joan’s poetry has both philosophical and symbolic undertones that should give the show a more universal edge.          


SLOW KICKOFF FOR KENYAN THEATRE IN 2017

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (margaretta.gacheru@gmail.com)
The New Year seems to be a slow starter for Kenyan theatre as hardly anyone has a plan to stage a show in January apart the intrepid Muthoni Garland who promised her Nyef Nyef Storytellers will perform later this month.
Muthoni Garland, founder of Nyef Nyef Storytellers in A White Wedding
Tete Burugu in A White Wedding, one of the Nyef Nyef storytellers
But that’s not to say all thespians are sleeping since Sitawa Namwalie’s premiering her original play ‘Room of lost names’ next month; Elsaphan Njora plans to stage street theatre for Valentine’s Day, Festival of Creative Arts will bring back ‘Tit for Tat’ at Kenya National Theatre in February and Silvia Cassini plans to re-stage ‘A Man Like You’ early this year.
Maina Olwenya (centre) in Edufa also starred in 'A Man Like You'
Otherwise, late last year, the Oxford dictionaries chose the term ‘post-truth’ as its ‘international word of the year’ for 2016. Coincidentally, two of Nairobi’s most popular theatre companies were apparently tuned into the same global trend that defined post-truth as basically ‘big talk based on hot air and huge egos being more influential than truth and fact’.
Staging shows that amplified the power of presence, theatre companies like Festival of Creative Art and Heartstrings Entertainment both ended their year by putting on combustible social satires that exposed and made fun of liars and con-men who seemed to win hearts and minds by being deceitful, audacious and passionately self-serving while seeming to be upright and honest.
Bilal Wanjau (left man) played the powerful politician and conman who wanted to get rid of the step-daughter he'd sexually assaulted over the years by getting her declared NUTS+

In FCA’s ‘Nuts+’ and Heartstrings’ ‘Behind my Back’, it was invariably the biggest and most bombastic liars who seemed to succeed. They’d do so simply by making outrageous claims pronounced with so much self-assurance that even supposedly smart people believed their lies.

Some critics might question calling ‘Nuts+’ a satire since there’s been a murder with the dead man’s wife charged with bumping him off; also she’s charged with being mentally sick with her own family claiming she needed to be locked up for life.
In fact, the young woman, Claudia (Helena Waithera) was a survivor of child-abuse inflicted by her step-dad, Donald (Bilal Wanjau) who’s a politician keen to put her away.
‘Nuts+’ was actually a serious drama that grappled with hard-core issues, but for me what gave it a satiric edge was the way Donald ultimately got exposed for being the scum-bag he was. True, he’d managed to become a politically powerful mayor after persuading a gullible public, including Claudia’s shrink (Mourad Sadat), his family’s prosecutor (Bokeba Mbotela) and even his wife (Marianne Nungo), Claudia’s mum, that he was an honest, good man.
So seamless were Donald’s lies that he almost got away with locking up the one person who could destroy his political career.
Fortunately, it was finally the Judge (Angel Waruinge) who saw through the parents’ pretentious plan and rule in Claudia’s favor.
But just imagine the way everyone else got duped by Donald, the child predator and the one who should have been put away for good.
Probably, the better example of a ‘post-truth’ play that more flagrantly satirized con-men and women was Heartstrings’ ‘Behind my Back’ which spoofed so many ways that some Kenyans have learned how to play kleptomaniac games and slip into other people’s shoes (pocket-books and beds) without the slightest pang of guilt.
    Nick Kwach and Victor Nyaata are both conmen in Behind my Back

Stealing other people’s identities isn’t simply a ‘Kenyan thing’. Sadly, it’s happening all over the world, to the point where hackers can get into people’s personal secrets and even into their bank accounts without fear of getting caught.
In ‘Behind my Back’, Amos (Victor Nyaata) was Dominic’s (Nick Kwach) houseman, but after the boss left town (almost), Amos took on Dom’s identity so he could woo the pretty lady, Nyokabi (Adelyne Wairimu) who showed up at his front door.
Not quite equipped to step into the boss’s shoes, Amos’s pretentious ineptitude was terribly funny, but Nyokabi initially seemed impressed. But then the boss returned, (his flight having been cancelled), quickly sized up the scene, and also pretended to be Amos to help his houseman save face.
Their dexterous duplicity was delightful, especially as they swapped identities severally, reverting back to the truth, every time Nyokabi left the room.
But what was really fun was when the boss’s mistress Elizabeth (Mackryn Adhiambo) showed up, only to find her maid Nyokabi there, wearing her clothes and pretending to be her.  It was a shocker, especially as we saw everyone was a trickster playing a game.
But the ‘coup de grace’ came when Elizabeth’s spouse (Cyprian Osoro) showed up and the whole charade exploded, proving that post-truth ultimately can’t last forever. Truth, we have heard, is bound to win the day. But until Oxford finds a better term, local theatre troupes will be right in step with our ‘post-truth’ times.
HAPPY NEW YEAR 2017 TO ALL!
Some of the thespians I tried to contact both to thank for their great work & for a story on theatre in 2017, but most are still contemplating what comes next in the new year. Among them were:
Elsaphan Njora, Sitawa Namwalie, Steenie Njoroge, Eliud Abuto, Sammy Mwangi, Muthoni Garland, John Sibi-Okumu, Kamau Ndungu, Sheba Hirst, Harsita Waters, Silvia Cassini, Mshai, Maimouna, Sitati, Edwin KNT, Tumbo, Friends, Fanaka, Braeburn, Lukalia, Kigundo, Keith Pearson, Nyaata, Phoenix, Aghan, Checkmate, and many more.


Monday, 2 January 2017

New Visual Artists Association to build an ANTI-CORRUPTION CAMPAIGN

‘ART FIGHTS CORRUPTION’ IN THE NEW YEAR

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted January 4, 2017)

Rix Butama is a name that Kenyan artists who studied at the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art in the 1990s will recall, seeing as he was BIFA’s Principal from its inception in 1993 up until the start of the new Millennium

Tobias 'Rix' Butama
He might also be remembered by anyone who religiously watched The Art Zone on KBC-TV in the early 2000s.

But Butama’s been something of an ‘invisible man’ at least to Nairobians since those days. It’s in part because he chose to move back home to Bungoma where he now paints full time. But it’s also partly because he had a near-death accident sometime back that stunned his doctors when he came back from ‘the dead’. It seems he chose to live a quiet life ever since.

But Butama’s art is soon to play a major role, with one of his painting serving as the center piece of an exhibition on ‘Art Fights Corruption’ which is scheduled to take place sometime later this year.
Butama painting entitled 'See no evil' which Paa ya Paa's Elimo Njau proposed by example to illustrate them of 'ART FIGHTS CORRUPTION' an exhibition to be held at PYP by KNVAA

The date hasn’t been set as yet, according to Naftal Momanyi, the founder and interim chairman of a new arts organization, the Kenya National Visual Artists Association (KNVAA). But most likely the show won’t open until after the annual Manjano Art Competition and Exhibition takes place sometime in March.

That way, artists will have time to prepare artworks to enter in both the Manjano competition which promises cash prizes for the winners and the ‘Art Fights Corruption’ exhibition which aims to encourage Kenyan artists to speak out visually about the country’s corrosive plight derived from the greed, ignorance and short-sightedness of local citizens, including so-called ‘public servants’ and some members of the public at large.

The idea of an ‘Art Fights Corruption’ show came out of a meeting between the newly-registered KNVAA and the Paa ya Paa managing director, octogenarian artist, Elimo Njau who was given Butama’s painting for show and potentially for sale several years ago.
Elimo Njau

Naftal had been promoting the idea of a new activist-oriented local arts association for several months on social media. His persistence paid off last December when he managed to register the group which he hopes will bring artists together and help them lobby the Kenya government to give greater attention and support to visual artists.

Hopeful that KNVAA won’t follow the path of other visual artists groups which hardly get off the ground before they flop, Naftal already has a paid-up membership of almost 40 local artists who are keen to see this association succeed where others have not.

Choosing the visit Paa ya Paa and the elder statesman of East African art Elimo just before the Christmas break, the group’s arrival at Njau’s doorstep couldn’t have been more propitiously timed.

“Maurice Wolfe wanted Paa ya Paa [including the five acres on which the gallery stands] to belong to Kenyan artists,” said Njau who admitted it was Wolfe who bought the land for his favorite secondary school student whom he had taught years before in Tanzania.

Wolfe had come to Kenya to visit Elimo in the Seventies and had seen how his former student was struggling to sustain the art center. That’s how he came up with the idea of ensuring Paa ya Paa’s future as well as to make his contribution to an emerging Kenyan art scene.

Whether KNVAA will serve as the sort of arts organization that can cooperate with Paa ya Paa in days to come is not yet clear. Only time will tell; but there is light doubt that Elimo needs the support of local artists to get the fallen ‘Mau Mau Freedom fighter’ sculpture by Samwel Wanjau repaired and back on a solid cement footing and situated in a central location.
Samwel Wanjau's fallen Mau Mau Freedom Fighter felled by a philistine Kenyan woman who employed more than a dozen men plus a Caterpillar forklift to take the Freedom Fighter down. To me, the downing of this historic statue is a criminal offence

There’s a broad consensus that Wanjau’s masterpiece deserves a gazetted status as a national monument for the world to see. The fact that the statue was pulled down by men employed to do it by some philistine who had no sense of its historical, cultural or artistic value seems senseless and even criminal to me.

But the first step for KNVAA and PYP to work together will be in organizing the ‘Art Fights Corruption’ exhibition. Naftal has already invited artists to submit art works on social media, although he says he’ll be doing more promotion for it in the coming days.

In the meantime, the Mau Mau Freedom Fighter requires its own resurrection. It seems like the least we can do to commemorate Kenyan heroes, both the cultural one, Samwel Wanjau, and the political ones, the anti-colonial Mau Mau Freedom fighters.






MINISTER OF CULTURE PROMISES SUPPORT FOR THEATRE & THE CREATIVE ECONOMY


DR WARIO RECALLS HIS PAST AS A PERFORMING ARTIST

BY margaretta wa gacheru


The 2016 Sanaa Theatre Awards were memorable for many reasons, not least of which was the promising presentation made by the evening’s Guest of Honor, the Minister of Sports, Culture and the Art, Dr. Hassan Wario.

The Culture CS was more relaxed, spontaneous, open and enthusiastic about Kenyan theatre than I had ever seen him before. Bringing up his background in theatre, he shared his appreciation for thespians with whom he had acted at the University of Nairobi. These included performing artists like Oby Obyerodhiambo, the late Johnny Nderitu, Mueni Lundi and even the late Dr Opiyo Mumma, all of whom were part of Theatre Workshop Production, the vibrant, dynamic and innovative theatre company that shaped many actors’ careers in the 1990s.



What was most significant about Dr Wario’s presentation was the overwhelming support he expressed for the Kenya National Theatre and theatre generally in Kenya. “We must own our theatre, tell our own stories…and recognize the role theatre can play in the creative economy,” he said.

Noting that theatre is much more than acting alone, Dr Wario said it was nonetheless one of the key factors in developing Kenya’s burgeoning creative economy. He added that evidence of the government’s support for the arts and culture was taking place [this past] Tuesday when the first batch of film students were graduating from the Kenya Government-funded Film School based in Kasarani Sports Centre.

The other really exciting news item that Dr Wario shared was about the title deed to the entire Kenya Culture Centre ground finally being in the hands of KCC, an entitlement for which local creatives have been asking for many years.


According to the Chairman of the KCC Board, Mr Nicholas ole Moipei, the deed includes the acreage adjacent to the theatre where plans are already underway to establish an International Arts and Culture Centre which will serve the interests of all the creative arts.

Dr Wario also recalled having seen President Uhuru Kenyatta acting on the National Theatre stage, implying that he has the full backing for the promotion and development of Kenya’s creative economy.

Up until now, artists like Checkmate Mido, the multifaceted entertainer who performed last weekend with The Box of Beats, were grateful to foreign cultural centres like Goethe Institute (where Checkmate performed las weekend with his marvelous group of guitarists, drummers and beat-boxers) and Alliance Francaise for providing them with space where they could let their luminous artistic lights shine brightly.

And while creatives are not likely to give up staging shows at foreign venues, one also has to agree with Dr Wario that when we tell our own stories in our own ‘homes’ (such as KNT), it’s then that “we are winners.”

Thespians and all Kenyan creatives will undoubtedly look forward to seeing how Dr Wario fulfills his promise to assist Kenyan theatre in days to come. His identification with the local thespian community was clearly long overdue.