The East African - - ART -


TSpe­cial hese first few weeks of the New Year can be tough. Back to work, traf­fic at full strength, credit card chaos, school fees, books and uni­forms.

In the art world, most ex­hi­bi­tions are hang­overs from the run-up to Christ­mas un­til the new round of big-hit­ters be­gins.

One such Christ­mas show, still of­fer­ing with by-now some­what des­per­ate sea­sonal good­will, is at the Na­tional Mu­se­ums of Kenya.

It is on un­til the end of this month at the main mu­seum on Nairobi’s Mu­seum Hill.

And if you want to get rid of that post-fes­tive flat feel­ing it’s worth try­ing to for­get all the jokes about tur­keys and re­vive your spir­its with a visit.

On show in the up­stairs Cre­ativ­ity Gallery are 25 paint­ings, of which 19 are by the South Su­danese artist Deng Chol, plus eight sculp­ture groups by Charles Bwire.

To­gether they sug­gested the ex­hi­bi­tion to mu­seum cu­ra­tors who broad­ened its ap­peal by adding the pain­ters Ruth Nyakundi, An­war Sa­dat, Yusuf Ssalu and Ngula Yusuf.

Re­in­forc­ing the sea­sonal theme are a se­ries of posters, each ra­di­at­ing dif­fer­ent as­pects of the Christ­mas mes­sage; for ex­am­ple Hope, For­give­ness, Peace and Love, and Car­ing, plus of course the one that gave the show its name, Glad Tid­ings.

What first catches the eye is the num­ber of Bwire’s sculp­tures dot­ted around the gallery. They turn out to be mostly an­i­mal stud­ies, but he ven­tures poses with his tableau of Sam­son and Delilah.

Amus­ingly in­dif­fer­ent to po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, the ex­plana­tory note posted on its plinth be­gins, “An­other typ­i­cal case of a woman be­tray­ing a man.”

Oh dear.

Bwire catches Sam­son asleep and about to have his hair cut off by Delilah who with a knife in each hand thus robs him of his strength. In the Bi­ble it is Delilah’s ser­vant who cuts the hair, not Delilah her­self, but why let the story get in the way of dra­matic com­po­si­tion?

The sculp­tor, based at the Na­tional Rail­way Mu­seum art gallery, is on safer ground with his an­i­mal stud­ies. There is a ro­bust ea­gle, for in­stance, and a leop­ard on a bough. Then too his mod­el­ling of rhi­nos is con­fi­dent, as are his horses, a buf­falo and a cou­ple of lion tro­phy heads in bas-re­lief. Even the Man-eat­ing Lions of Tsavo that killed 35 In­dian rail­way work­ers in 1898 get a look in. Bwire shows them cor­rectly with­out manes and in­cludes, this time, a PC plea for the repa­tri­a­tion of their stuffed re­mains from the Field Mu­seum of Chicago.

A charm­ing study of Mzee the gi­ant tor­toise and his un­likely friend Owen the res­cued hippo that lived at Haller Park, Bam­buri, calls for at­ten­tion too.

An evan­ge­list for sculp­ture, Bwire be­moans the fact that there are, as he sees it, too few sculp­tors in East Africa and of them not enough us­ing the cold cast­ing method he favours. He there­fore filmed a help­ful tu­to­rial of how to go about the process. You can find it on Youtube.

The key to com­pe­tence in an­i­mal sculp­ture is a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of anatomy and the or­gan­i­sa­tion of the bones be­neath the skin. And that ap­plies as equally to ro­bust ex­pres­sion­ist pieces as it does to the more tra­di­tional an­i­malier tra­di­tion (which Bwire fol­lows) started by the French sculp­tors of the mid 19th cen­tury.

Hap­pily, in the nearby Aga Khan Hall of the mu­seum, is an ex­hi­bi­tion that could have been mounted just for Bwire.

It is all about those bones and tells us the six main func­tions of a skele­ton — and I had no idea there were that many — sup­ported by nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples.

The whale is amaz­ing, the va­ri­ety of skulls with at­tached horns as­ton­ish­ing, and the Big Five are prop­erly present. I felt a bit sorry, though, for the tor­toise that with­out its shell looked like a car­toon char­ac­ter that has crashed spread­ea­gled onto its lit­tle podium.

This is a de­tailed, in­for­ma­tive and fas­ci­nat­ing show for which the mu­seum de­serves great credit.

Back in the Cre­ativ­ity Gallery, Deng Chol’s paint­ings dom­i­nate the ex­hi­bi­tion, in num­bers at least. His works, mainly ab­stract but with a cou­ple of fig­u­ra­tive pieces thrown in, are mostly small and with their rich pal­ette and in­tri­cately lay­ered and combed sur­faces glow like jew­els.

From South Sudan, Chol is now based at the Kobo Trust stu­dios in Dagoretti.

An­war Sa­dat shows just two paint­ings, in­clud­ing what for me was the finest in the hall,

Typ­i­cally Su­danese, its grid of sym­bols from the nat­u­ral world res­onated against an off-whiie back­ground, giv­ing it au­thor­ity and pres­ence.

Ruth Nyakundi demon­strated a strong sense of rhythm in both her works; a group of five fig­ures called

and her re­duc­tive study of 60 or so Maa­sai in

Yusuf Ssalu made an im­pact with his sole com­po­si­tion of what ap­peared to be glit­ter­ing baubles from a Christ­mas tree, while Ngula Yusuf, also with only one paint­ing, took the sea­son’s TV of­fer­ings as his start­ing point with a pat­tern of screens called

So were my spir­its suit­ably up­lifted dur­ing this lull in the year’s artis­tic ac­tiv­i­ties? They were — and hardly a turkey in sight.

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