Imagine a trio of stationary zebras set
against a brilliant blue sky or the bold, red fabric swathing
a trio of tall Maasai or the bust of a black woman, carved from
wood, and sprouting glinting, silver nails bent to form the curls
of her hair.
These rarely seen artworks from Kenya can be experienced in the
flesh all over Brooklyn as part of the "Kenya Art"
show, organized by Five Myles gallery director Hanne Tierney.
After two years of labor, the ambitious "Kenya Art"
show – an exhibition of 96 artworks in a variety of media – is
on display at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library at
Grand Army Plaza, the Five Myles Gallery in Crown Heights, the
Kentler International Drawing Space in Red Hook, Long Island
University’s Salena Gallery in Downtown Brooklyn and the Welancora
Gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant through Feb. 29.
About 50 artists are represented in this show which brings to
the United States the art of eastern Africa’s Kenya as opposed
to the more frequently exhibited works of western Africa. (All
of the artists live and work in Kenya with the exception of Meek
Gichugu, who now lives in France.)
"Kenya Art" was curated by Judy Ogana, director of
the Kuona Trust Museum Art Studio and Carol Lees, program coordinator
at Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art, both based in Nairobi.
On Jan. 14, Ogana and Lees joined Tierney at the Central Library
for a panel discussion about this momentous borough-wide exhibition.
The show was the brainchild of Tierney, who exhibits works from
Africa every two years at her gallery. On a visit to Nairobi
she viewed contemporary artwork in the national museum. "To
use a downtown word, it blew me away," she said.
Tierney speculated that the dearth of Kenyan art in the international
scene might just be because their modern art scene is so new,
although they’ve been making art since the beginning of time.
"The first art venues appeared only after Kenya’s independence,
in 1963," said Tierney.
"It’s an art scene not yet dominated by the pressure of
sales or financial commitments, but rather by the exhilaration
that accompanies the beginning of a journey," she said.
The curators explained that their mission was to select a broad
swath of artwork from contemporary Kenyan artists – and this
is just the tip of that country’s iceberg.
"The works we selected are a cross-section of what could
be found," said Ogana. "It’s not comprehensive. It’s
not all encompassing, just a taste of what East Africa has to
Performance artist Bantu Mwaura said that even the nature of
Kenyan art is different from the Western concept of painting,
sculpture or song.
"What’s interesting about art in Kenya is that in the Western
world what is considered fine art is really an interesting fusion
in Kenya," said Mwaura. "There’s a word for dance and
song. It’s the same word, because there could be no song without
Mwaura said he was inspired by a political cartoonist’s work,
so he made a theater piece based on it.
Tierney pointed out the differences between West and East African
"My impression of West African artists is that they are
Eurocentric, much closer to the art of the West than Kenyan artists,"
she said. "One of the strengths here [in this exhibit] is
that it is not an imitated voice. To me it’s almost like jazz.
People speak because it’s in them, not someone else’s voice."
At the Central Library there are several large, vibrant paintings
tucked away in the Lobby Gallery alcove by the elevators. Art
lovers will be rewarded for sleuthing them out by the sight of
Simon Murithi’s "Homeward Coming," a dense, complicated
composition painted and scratched onto the 12 canvases, incorporating
a woman curled inside an oval with flowers. A man’s face peeks
in from the left of the frame, watching the woman, or perhaps,
Also in the Lobby Gallery is Elijah Ooko’s "A Group of Zebras,"
which takes the unconventional, and humorous, approach of painting
a trio of the striped animals from behind.
In the library’s main lobby are numerous works on paper and on
the second floor balcony are wood sculptures including "Henry’s
Bust," by David Mwaniki, and a display of Frank Odoi’s comic
strips, "Akokhan Lives."
Opening Jan. 17, at the Kentler International Drawing Space,
will be an exhibition of works on paper including colored pencil
drawings by Joel Oswaggo, born in 1944, of the disappearing way
of life of his tribe, the Luo. Among the works is "The Bird
Catchers," an 11-inch by 14-inch, stylized drawing of two
villagers and a child hanging vibrant baskets on a towering,
Now on display at the Welancora Gallery are paintings from two
artist communities in rural Kenya: Banana Hill and the Ngecha
Group. (Tierney said this African-American gallery, run by Nicole
Jones, will soon be the first auction house dedicated to selling
work by artists of African descent.)
Now on display at Tierney’s own Five Myles gallery and performance
space, are the works of "first generation" artists
such as Sane Wadu, Ancent Soi and Annabelle Wanjiku.
According to Tierney, "These [first-generation] artists
are little influenced by the Western parameters of academic training.
They are the originators of modern art in Kenya."
Two Kenyan artists, whose work is on display now at the Salena
Gallery at Long Island University, James Mbuthia and Petersen
Kamathi, will be in residence at the Five Myles gallery working
on an installation of a chicken coop, which will be unveiled
at the Salena for its reception on Feb. 11 from 5 pm to 7 pm.
Several New York artists will be invited to create chickens for
the coop, said Tierney.
The artists’ residency and a portion of the exhibit costs are
being underwritten by the Ford Foundation, said Tierney.
"The Ford Foundation thought it would be very nice and important
to have two artists come over and profit from the experience
– which is terrific," she said. "The foundation and
Rob Burnett have taken this really seriously and are thinking
about what’s good for Kenya." In addition to raising the
visibility of the artists, all of the works are for sale.
"This work isn’t shown, it doesn’t get out much, so it’s
great to have it in this New York art scene," said Tierney.
The last piece of the borough-wide show is an exhibit of works
by "second-generation" artists, including Kamathi,
Ooko and Irene Wanjiru, among others, at the Salena Gallery.
Where to GO
"Kenya Art" will be on display through Feb. 29 at these
locations: Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library at Grand
Army Plaza (718) 230-2100, www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org; Kentler
International Drawing Space, 353 Van Brunt St. at Wolcott Street
in Red Hook (718) 875-2093; Long Island University’s Salena Gallery,
at the corner of Flatbush Avenue Extension and DeKalb Avenue
in Downtown Brooklyn, (718) 488-1198; Welancora Gallery 410 Jefferson
Ave. at Throop Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant, (718) 919-0344;
and Five Myles, 558 St. Johns Place between Classon and Franklin
avenues in Crown Heights (718) 783-4438.
The entire exhibition is free and open to the public.
Related events, which are also
"Golden Libations" presents spoken-word performances
at Five Myles on Feb. 15 from 4 pm to 6 pm.
Kenyan storytelling for families, with Bantu Mwaura, on Feb.
1 at 2 pm, and Swahili poetry readings in Swahili and English
on Feb. 8 at 2 pm at the Central Library.
Opening reception for the Kentler International Drawing Space
exhibit on Jan. 17 from 2 pm to 5 pm.
Reception for the Salena Gallery’s exhibit of Kenya’s second-generation
artists, on Feb. 11, from 5 pm to 7 pm.