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Monday, April 28, 2008

On the contemporary art trail

have not yet mastered the layout of this blog - so please forgive me - the first photograph is a view from the amazing Emerson Blue Hotel which will be opening later in the year, in Zanzibar. Second image is an old lady in Zanzibar, third shows sculpture by George Lilanga and the fourth is the Coffe Machine in the bar at the wonderful, historic and friendly Taitu Hotel, Addis Abeba, those looking for luxury should look elsewhere.

I apologise for the gap in the service…I have been busy travelling and, I have to say, having a most interesting time. Many of you know East Africa – for those who don’t – I thoroughly recommend it – especially Zanzibar and Addis Abeba. The spelling of the latter is correct, Ababa being meaningless baby talk introduced by some European or other – at least I think that’s the case.

I am so far behind in my reports about individual artists that I thought I would do a ramble about my travels and artists that I have come to know about. I hope to go back and feature some of the main artists here in more detail when I have time.

Starting in Zanzibar I went to meet Anita Sita of the Real Art Gallery in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Anita has a serious collection of work by the renowned Tanzanian artist George Lilanga and she and her husband used to buy work from him in the last years of his life. She also has good collections of Makonde sculpture and other contemporary art from Tanzania and Uganda. I was surprised to find that Anita is only 28 years old and intrigued to learn that her late father was from the Makonde tribe. Her gallery is well worth a visit if you ever go to Zanzibar, which is, it has to be said, one of the most charming places on earth. Beneath are some of the wooden sculptures by George Lilanga that I have recently bought for the Daraja Collection in London.

I have spent the last three weeks in Addis Abeba. This has caused jealousy amongst friends and colleagues. My complaints about the air pollution in Addis – which combined with the altitude makes life slightly uncomfortable – fell on deaf ears.

I first came to Addis in about 1993 just after the loathed Mengistu was ousted and went off to become Robert Mugabe’s personal advisor. I went on behalf of an aggressive book supply company who had head hunted me as the man to get them a library supply contract in Addis – am I rambling? – I had just given up smoking which slightly spoiled the fun of staying at the Hilton on expenses. I remember good looking Ethiopian families luxuriating by the pool while most outside the Hilton had distinctly lean and hungry looks. I have no idea what happened re the contract – mine was a luxurious courtesy call. The book company eventually went bust owing publishers a million pounds.

Addis then, seemed pretty deserted. Dotted with little blue pickups converted in to buses playing tinkling Ethiopian music, with polite passengers and no hint of Kenyan style crotch-in-your- face overcrowding. The women were, and of course still are, extraordinarily beautiful and charming – and are not in the least bit afraid to receive and give smiles. On my first trip I met a young man on the street who was desperate to get out of Ethiopia as he said young people were being press ganged in to the army, he showed me round Addis and I remember his pleasant demeanour. I remember a rather quiet city, largely bereft of young people, slowly awaking after years of the Derg.

Addis today is in the throws of massive, some would say brutal, change as major road building projects plough through this very large and rather grand city in all directions – all built by the Chinese. There is an unbelievable amount of building going on. On one side of Addis – geography never my strong point – there is a vast new housing area covering what was grazing ground before for miles – the scale of it reminds me of Dubai’s extravagant and surreal development. I heard that the Mayor of Addis has a plan to turn his city in to a new Dubai…when I ask Ethiopian friends where all the money is coming from – is it the Diaspora? 500,000 Ethiopians living in Washington state – something like that anyway – is it “the Americans”? Is it China? Is it the World Bank? Is it – and I must be careful what I say here – Blogspot is banned in Ethiopia because of politically critical blogs - is it, lets just say, ill gotten gains? No one has a clue! Some think that there is far too much building going on and that there will be a glut of office and residential properties. I don’t know. What I do know is that many of the beautiful old buildings that have not been pulled down illegally are being boxed in by high-rise blocks, which is sad. And I know that very few diesel-engined vehicles are properly serviced so that smoke enthusiastically belches from most of them. And as a result the parking girls as the parking ticket girl are known, wear shawls across their face making them look like friendly terrorists.

After that vaguely critical ramble I shall balance things by mentioning that Ethiopia is known as a good implementer of government programmes. There is real civic pride there which is rare in the rest of East Africa – and this ensures that projects whether they be school or road building do get carried out, and for all my dislike of roads – good or bad - and pollution, I salute that determination and discipline.

And now to art….

The Ethiopian art scene is extremely interesting. There is a wealth of talent working both inside Ethiopia and in the Diaspora. Julie Mehretu – who was born in Addis in 1970 but has not lived there since childhood, being Ethiopia’s biggest global “player” as I am tempted to refer to global artists, as. She is exhibited by the White Cube in London, she is also a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship $500,000 “Genius Grant” – more on this later. Her work is extraordinary.

Skunder (Alexander Boghossian) , who died recently, is recognised as the father of Ethiopian modernism – his work is contemporary, yet steeped in rich and ancient Ethiopian traditions of symbolism and Talismanic art. He left Ethiopia before the Derge and never returned – creating a focus for Ethiopian artists in the USA. His cousin Wosene Kosrof is still very active in the USA, and is just about to have a show with Bill Karg at the Gallery of Contemporary African Art, New York . There are numerous and excellent Ethiopian artists working in the Diaspora – one of these is Mickhael Betthe Selassie whom I was lucky enough to meet at the Asni Gallery in Addis on a short trip home. Mickhael trained originally as a scientist in Paris before discovering his vocation as artist and sculptor. He has lived and worked in Paris ever since, producing extremely individualistic pieces of art – mostly in the form of papier-mâché sculpture.

Mickhael Betthe Selassie outside Gallery Asni and one of his small paintings

There are two main contemporary art spaces in Addis currently - the well established Asni Gallery run by Konjit Seyum and the much newer Gallery Lela owned by Lilly Sahle with Leo Lefort as curator. Both are very impressive (both spaces and people!) and have regular interesting shows - whilst I was there Daniel Taye exhibited at Gallery Lela with powerful new work as well as some older paintings. Taye is a painter's painter - very much a Bohemian as his studio suggests - see below Lilly and Daniel in Daniel's studio. The only concern I have about Daniel is the clear evidence of influence from many of the great European artists - Rembrandt, Van Gogh (both of whom he openly parodies) and others, not that I think that African artists should not derive inspiration from Western artists should they wish to do so - but I get the feeling that Daniel's own style has yet to fully emerge - that will be hotly disputed by some -but it's my opinion - in a way its very exciting because as the slogan on the back of many a truck in Kenya goes - "The best is yet to come".

There is much to be said about both galleries - but time limitations mean that I have to summarise by saying that Addis now has real infrastructure for contemporary art thanks to the dedication of a number of key people.

I was introduced to Meskerem Assegued, the respected African curator and anthropologist, and Elias Sime the artist with whom she has been working with for many years. Elias’s show “What is Love?” – opened at the Alliance Francaise, Addis Abeba the week after I arrived. The distinguished American Theatre and arts Director and film maker, Peter Sellars (interestingly, also a recipient of the Macarthur Fellowship) had arrived in Addis especially to get a preview of Elias’s show – Elias had worked with him in 2006 at the New Crowned Hope Festival, part of “Mozart’s Vienna”. Sellars was ecstatic about Sime’s work – indeed he went down on his knees to him in the exhibition hall! Elias is a modest man of few words, his English is not particularly good, unmarried, childless – utterly dedicated to his art.

His show is extraordinary. Comprising of an installation made up of 107 stuffed goatskins most of these intricately embroidered, and 21 two dimensional works. These made from cotton stitched on canvas and in some cases, flattened bottle tops and toys. Apart from attending exhibitions in the U.S.A. and Vienna, Elias has never lived outside Ethiopia. His work is extraordinarily detailed and labour intensive and amazingly, unlike many other artists, he does all the handwork himself. When you look at his intricately stitched canvasses – one could be reminded of an epic poem masterpiece – not one stitch is out of place. Though not at all loquacious, Elias talks interestingly about his work - I’ll give you an example – the work below – which I don’t yet have a title for but which was produced a number of year ago.

I spoke to Elias about it,
“Is this street kid?” I asked
He replied along these lines:
“ Sometimes life doesn’t got the way you planned.
You see the young man has a jacket on but it’s the wrong way round.
He is fighting to turn his life around.
I am saying that you can turn your life around – it is possible.
He is on the process of doing that.”

I believe that Elias has been very fortunate to collaborate with the sensitive and culturally knowledgeable Meskerem Assegued. There is a gap in the African contemporary art world – certainly in East Africa – for curators of her standing. And here is an extraordinary artist who has been able to flourish on his own ground, in his own rich culture, with professional curatorial input. Wonderful!

Elias’s work can be seen in the Studio Museum, Harlem, New York, where he is part of the FLOW exhibition of contemporary African art.
There are plans to take his latest show, to both Paris and New York. It seems that we will be hearing much more of the remarkable Elias Sime.

See also:

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Charles Sekano and the Food Of Love

Amongst my ancestors I have a long line of English country parsons, writing this blog begins to remind me of the weekly sermon where the hapless pastor struggles to reconcile personal events of the week with biblical passages.

I don’t wish to stray too far from the topic of this blog, but parson-like, I may work in some extraneous material. And for better or for worse, there is no one to stop me.

Last night I went to a good friend’s family gathering. My friend is a “Kenyan Asian” from a liberal Muslim family. The occasion was his nephew’s twenty second birthday. It was the first time I had met his extended family and we gathered at a Taiwanese Restaurant in Westlands, Nairobi. This is in itself a typical urban Kenyan situation – third and fourth generation Kenyan Asians gathering in a more recent immigrants’ restaurant.

The food and service was excellent but what was even better was the good humour and teasing that went on during the meal, amid the customary friendliness of the Kenyan waiters. Then came the cake and a small but beautiful ceremony from my friend’s brother in law to his son – blessing him and inviting blessings from all present. This ended in a gentle chorus of Amen or was it Amin? (in truth I think a sort of universal mixture of both). This was followed by the young man being fed the cake by all of us in turn with a fork – again a serious gesture but not without the inevitable application of cream to the cheeks by some of his cheekier siblings.

This of course has nothing much to do with Charles Sekano, a South African jazz musician and artist who lived in Kenya during the eighties and nineties in exile from his, then apartheid, home country. Except, and there are always connections to be made, Sekano, like my Kenyan Asian friends, and no doubt the Taiwanese restauranteur and family, had made a home away from his original home in this most hospitable of countries.

I have not yet found much information about Charles, who is now back in South Africa. My friend, Mary Collis, founder of the Ramoma Gallery, tells me that he loves women. This comes as no surprise when one looks at his work, which is almost exclusively dominated by beautiful women and music. I know that he is a Jazz musician, a pianist and I believe, a saxophonist – if anyone, including the man himself, has more information I would love to receive it. What I do know is that his work is superb. Unpretentious, sure footed, if you will pardon the metaphor, and important in its way. It documents the era of the eighties and nineties in Nairobi, in a Kenya in the grip of Moi’s tyranny, but nevertheless a place where anyone who wasn’t an avowed enemy of state and who had enough Kenya shillings in their pocket, could enjoy the glittering prizes of a truly multiracial Nairobi at night. In a city, partly known for its squalor and crime, redeemed for many by its nightlife.

For me, Charles Sekano is one of those rare artists who has what one might call effortless talent. I can imagine him working quickly and without fuss, and never failing to catch the specific expressions and moods of his subjects and scenes.

You can find his work in the Contemporary African Art Gallery in New York and it is in major collections in Europe and elsewhere. Charles Sekano was one of Gallery Watatu’s Ruth Schaffner’s key artists. Collectors and art lovers should take note.

As always happy to hear from anyone who might want to collect Charles Sekano and any of the artists featured on this blog. Also, any comments always welcome.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Art in Crisis

Art in Crisis

The crisis in Kenya hangs over the country like smog. Some have lost their lives others their loved ones and homes, even privileged non-Kenyans like me, so far physically unaffected by the crisis, feel the psychological weight of a country we love that seems, at times, to be to be sleep walking towards an abyss. But there are signs that the “silent majority” are beginning to awake and force their politicians to deal with the crisis before it gets completely out of control. Caroline Mutoko an FM DJ from Kiss Fm in Nairobi with her comedian partner presenter "Nyambane" have been wrestling tirelessly with politicians on air, exhorting them and her fellow countrymen to stand up for peace and the ethos of “co-existence” which, despite the horrific acts of hooligan and incited youth, is still at the core of the Kenya that many of us know and love. Caroline Mutoko’s efforts are quite extraordinary and I salute her for her huge courage, heart and strength of character.

When I got to Nairobi about two weeks ago I didn’t expect to find artists already responding to recent tragic events, but believe me, they are. The work of two painters in particular, moved me.

John Kamicha

John is a highly creative and sensitive young man, in happier times known for his whacky sense of humour. The son of well known artist Zachariah Mbuthia, he has been raised in an atmosphere of art. Those familiar with his work can see a crystallisation of his talents over the last year and his recent work is very exciting. Last year Kamicha did a series of works using khangas (women’s traditional wraps) as canvas. Painting and drawing around the traditional motifs on the material, bringing the act of painting closer to his own culture and experience. Since then he has reverted to canvas but both uses pieces of Khanga on his works or uses the Khanga design format as his structure hence in this painting.

Mr Bodyguard, who will guard the Bodyguard?

we see the newly and controversially elected President of Kenya in the centre of the painting where a flower would normally reside in a Khanga design; and his security operatives, frieze like, in a border around the painting. Kamicha has seized on the now ubiquitous image of an African president flanked by his army officer. Human figures reflected in his glasses – possibly his advisors. The common people, tiny at his feet, queue patiently at a polling station. Bananas, the symbol of Kibaki’s unsuccessful constitution referendum campaign, ludicrously frame his head. The controversial Election result “certificate” he clutches firmly in his hand.

Mr Bodyguard. Who will Guard the Bodyguard?- John Kamicha - Acrylic on Canvas

In “Poor Women Carrying Empty Baskets” Kamicha could not be clearer. It is the innocent who are suffering in this chaos. Again, the Khanga is present. The uniquely East African wrap worn by women rich and poor, but mostly the poor – originally from the coast but embraced by women of all tribes in Kenya – worn on the head, round the waist, used to carry babies on the back, the elemental, thoroughly useful, inexpensive, and locally designed if not always manufactured, much loved piece of cloth. As I write this it dawns on me why Kamicha has used the Khanga – it is because it symbolises something deep in Kenya and Africa. It is timeless, practical and beautiful. So this is not some whim of the artist – this is heartfelt.

One could go further and say that the Swahili culture (one of the world’s earliest mixed race civilisations) which invented the Khanga, is the foundation for the national ethos of peaceful co-existence. So the Khanga is in a real sense more of a national flag than the Kenya national flag itself, the latter complete with its spears and shields.

In this painting two women carry their empty baskets. Children, vulnerable and abandoned, look up expectantly for sustenance and guidance. Scenes of destruction are taking place on the left of the figures and on the far left, a European man with spirals on his glasses, indicating inevitable confusion of vision, represents an election observer, with his camera dangling uselessly by his side. On the right hand side is a carved ritual figure often present in Kamicha’s work.

Poor Women Carrying Empty Baskets - John Kamicha - Acrylic on Canvas

John Kamicha’s work features in THE WAY WE LIKE IT Current Trends in the Visual Arts Scene - an artists’ initiative to raise money for the Displaced People, at Nairobi’s Village Market, curated by Xavier Verhost, in collaboration with Ramoma Gallery, sponsored by Commercial Bank of Africa. The Exhibition closes on Febuary 3rd,2008.

Charles Ngatia

Charles is an entirely self taught young artist from a poor background who came to Nairobi as a runaway teenager and who was saved from what would probably have been a life of dissipation through his participation in arts and drama workshops in the slums where he was living. After surviving as a scrap recycler - he trained and worked a mechanic before becoming a full time artist.

I get the sense from Charles that art is his way out of the ghetto – both as a process of self realisation and expression, and as a career. And there is something refreshing about his view of his work, there is no distinction between self advancement and the advancement of humanity, his art is concerned with both.

Charles works humbly in a corner of the communal studio at the Go Down Arts Centre in the industrial area of Nairobi. I had met him before and glossed over his work, which is naïve but very adventurous in its use of materials. As I walked past the studio I caught sight of some interesting painted scrap constructions outside, these turned out to be Ngatia’s, which lead me to him and his paintings. Inside I found him working on what he calls his “slums series”. On the wall behind him was this untitled painting, still wet.

Untitled (Slums series) Charles Ngatia - Oil on Canvas

Ngatia had been working on the slums series since before the election violence and one can see the effect of the chaos on his work, with this predominantly black and red painting. With its many compartment of violent scenes muddled in with every day life still going on but threatened, as in the children in the school. Everyday life, painful enough as it is, represented by the Rent Deadline is 5th

Pain Agency. Meanwhile the streets run with blood as people are chased in to buildings and property burnt. If you strain your eyes you might just be able to make out (I am sorry this photograph isn’t as good as it should be) an abandoned pair of flip-flops at the foot of the painting.

Ngatia’s use of language is deliberately funny and part of his appeal.

In this untitled work we find the intriguing “Small Demon Church” and the chilling “Domestic Violence Pub”. Here, and elsewhere, he introduces corrugated cardboard on to the canvas to suggest “Mabati” the ubiquitous corrugated iron sheets. Ngatia’s “Innocent Children Going to School” caption unconsciously echoes the Congolese master, Cheri Samba’s work who has evolved a style where the moral message of the painting from his war torn country is so important that he spells it out in large capital letters.

If you are interested in work from either of these artists drop me an email on

Appeal for Help

If anyone would like to donate some money to help the 300,000 internally displaced people in Kenya (many of whom are children) with bedding and food etc please email Carol Lees of Ramoma Gallery, Nairobi who is coordinating a project for the distribution of aid to those in need.

Carol Lees :

Carol will advise on how you can send money and what it will be spent on. To put this in perspective, James Mbuthia an established artist who works for Carol at Ramoma Gallery currently has 30 displaced people camped in his garden.

Most of us believe that Kenya will pull through and that her qualities of compassion, pragmatism and good humour will prevail, lets all pray for that in what ever way we pray.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Kenya, Zimbabwe and the spirit of artists

Peterson Kamwathi - Charcoal on Paper Jacob Wachira Ezigbo (Kenya) Oil on Canvas

It’s been a sad and grim last few weeks in Kenya though there are many signs of hope. Strange for me as I was in Zimbabwe until about ten days before the election, a country where a coffee cost over a million Zim Dollars and people could not get access to any cash with huge queues outside banks and a withdrawal limit of 10 million Zim dollars per day. I was fairly bullish about Kenya, putting aside any worries from watching opposition campaign rallies in Lamu, where youth had charged around brandishing sticks and looking like they might do some damage if they lost. Interestingly, my daughter went to an opposition party in Lamu just before the election and her friend there gleefully mentioned that they would burn down houses if they lost the election – mercifully that hasn’t happened in Lamu where people are generally very peaceful, but as you will know the Rift Valley is another story all together.

Kenya’s media has been extraordinary throughout all this chaos and violence, they have been united in their continuous and vigorous calls for peace, in fact a friend has suggested that – if peace does prevail in Kenya - that the Kenyan media as a whole be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. As the days pass politicians from both sides of the divide look increasingly selfish and incapable and are, I think, viewed with increasing contempt by many people. It used to be the case under Moi that most people disliked politics – for better or for worse Kenya’s new infatuation with democracy has caught a cold. Looking back, given the ethnic makeup for

Kenya multi party politics Western style has been a recipe for disaster, am not advocating a return to dictatorship but questions should be asked about this model’s suitability to countries like Kenya where ethnicity is a major factor and whose boundaries were draw with rulers wielded by British civil servants.

What has all this got to do with contemporary art? A great deal, actually. Art of all kinds can be a mirror in which societies can observe themselves and promote breakthroughs on thought and feeling. You only have to turn on the television in Kenya to find groups singing peace songs for their country and Eric Wainaina’s song about his country become a second National Anthem.

Artists here have influence. (and unlike the West their messages are not compromised by great affluence) Visual artists are usually less powerful than performers, but nevertheless they make a crucial contribution – especially in Zimbabwe where performance that is critical to the regime is not normally allowed; leaving visual artists, viewed by the authorities as the lunatic fringe, to take up the fight against injustice. There is much that I would like to say about Zimbabwe but in the interests of my continuing visits there and especially in the interest of the artists themselves, discretion will, at least for the time being, be the better part of valour.

I came back from Harare convinced that the most important work to collect there was that which reflected historic contemporary issues. I bought, through Gallery Delta, fourteen small works by Cosmos Shirizinomwa which effectively document the notorious Murambatsvina “operation clean up” in which thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed after the 2002 elections– in most case by their owners under threat of the military. This operation which went on all over Zimbabwe delivered a body blow the morale of the people from which they have yet to recover.

I also bought these two wonderful pieces by Munyaradzi Mazarire a young mixed media artist whose I had noticed before and who is still a student. He is among several compelling young artists shown by Gallery Delta, among others are Tafadzwa Getai, and Admire Kamudzengerere. I shall write more about these artists in due course.

Mazarire’s work speaks for itself the Perspective with Ladder work is one of a series of ladder pieces, as is Exercise 10 feet which to me speaks of a recently prized education system going to waste in contemporary Zimbabwe – the work, devoid of people, the complex equation on the blackboard rendered useless, the legs of the chairs and desk, like most of the population, left dangling.
Munyaradzi Mazarire ( Zimbabwe )- Exercise 10 feet - Mixed Media - 48 x 53cm

Munyaradzi Mazarire (Zimbabwe) Perspective With Ladder - Mixed Media - 48 x 45 cm

Coming back to Kenya; two artists whose work has reflected, possibly anticipated, the current chaos and bloodshed – Peterson Kamwathi and Jacob Wachira Ezigbo. The former with his work charting the abortive constitution making process – see the images of the Bulls below in an earlier posting, and even more so, his beautiful large charcoal drawings of sheep illustrated here above, and featured at his show mounted by Ramoma at La Rustique in Nairobi last year, with the implements of war and death in their shadows.

Ezigbo has show in Nairobi at the moment which opened before the elections – his paintings are both beautiful and dark – there is an utterly authentic taste of the grimness of urban life for the poor in Kenya as well as the universal realities of hope and beauty, creativity, (suggested by the images of birds and flowers) despite hardship – red paint hurled at the canvas mimics blood, hands pointing two ways now suggest to me choices between two extremes of love and hate as well as dismembered body parts possibly referring to the Mungiki sect activities and the brutal police

Jacob Wachira Ezigbo ( Kenya) Oil on Canvas

response in the last six months of last year. Ezigbo is also a great print maker as well as painter and for me it is the iconography of his work that sets him apart from much of Kenya’s artists.

I sign off with a plea to all of you who are not in Kenya – please keep faith with Kenya and don’t let the images of brutality that the world has seen recently cloud your vision of a country that I guess has it all – the beauty and the horror, the rich and the poor, the sea and the mountains, fifty something different tribes and specimens from practically every country on the globe (my English self included) , we hope that the events of the last few weeks will be part of Kenya’s very painful growing pains. Kenya is not the picture post card land that our tourist agencies with their “Jambo Bwana’s” would like to suggest, it is an interesting , vibrant developing country with major social problems and inequalities of wealth combined with many historical social and political injustices that need to be aired and addressed urgently, I guess a good look at Jacob Wachira Ezigbo’s work will explain a lot.

P.S. Since writing this I have heard that Jacob has been forced to flee his Mathare Valley home, he is currently organizing relief supplies for his fellow displaced residents - if you want to make a contribution to the relief effort click on this link