The Russian ambassador and his culturally-conscious wife are at it again. Ever since Alexander Makarenko and Elena Shidrina arrived in Kenya in early 2012, they have expressed their appreciation of indigenous Kenyan artists on several occasions.
Their primary contribution to the local arts scene has been to welcome Kenyan artists into their spacious residence (cum embassy) to exhibit their art and thus expose their work to a wider diplomatic audience, many of whom had never heard of local painters like Ancent Soi or Rahab Njambi Shine leave alone Bertiers Mbatia, Remy Musiindi or Boniface Maina before coming to see their art at the Russians’ residence.
The last major exhibition they held in 2013 was in October, shortly after the Kenya Museum Society put on their ‘Affordable Art’ Fair.
In the 1990s, KMS had organized the art fair annually, much to the delight of local artists who frequently made major sales at the fair. But that tradition died over the last decade, until this year when the Museum Society decided to revive it with the museum’s curatorial support.
The recent art fair was an overwhelming success, as something like half the artworks displayed were sold; but because so many artists had submitted their work, nearly half were not showcased as part of the fair. And that is where the ambassador and his wife stepped in.
“It was my wife’s idea to select artworks that were either unsold during the fair or never displayed, and then have an exhibition at the residence,” said the ambassador who has served in Africa for almost a quarter century.
Initially, their idea was rejected by the fair organiser, Dr Marla Stone.
“I had seen a ‘strange man’ rummaging through the more than 250 remaining works that we’d been unable to include in the fair for lack of space,” said Dr Stone whose team of volunteers had managed to display 250 paintings and sculptures in the Nairobi National Museum’s Court Yard, but had to leave the rest aside irrespective of their quality.
“The response to our call letter was so large that we had little choice but to keep some aside,” she added.
Dr Stone admits she was a bit abrupt after seeing this stranger in the museum conference room where the leftover art had been stored. But the ambassador quickly cleared the misunderstanding.
Explaining his intentions, he added that any revenue generated from sales of the art would all go back to the Museum Society for their projects.
“I was impressed that the idea of a Russian embassy showcase of contemporary Kenyan art meant local artists would have a second chance to expose their work to a wider audience.”
But in addition to the artists showing and selling their art that Saturday late last year, several of them made mention of their mentor, a fellow artist who also ran a gallery where many of them exhibited their work regularly.
“That was the first time I had ever heard of the Banana Hill Art Gallery and Shine Tani,” confessed Ambassador Makarenko.
The following day, he and his wife drove straight to see the gallery to meet Shine and his wife Rahab.
“We were so impressed with what we saw that we invited them to have an exhibition of their artists’ works at our residence whenever they liked.”
That’s how artists like Patrick Kinuthia, Sebastian Kiarie, Chain Muhandi, Martin Kamuyu, Martin Muhoro, Julius Kimemia, Wanyu Brush and Sane Wadu as well as Shine and Rahab all went on show at the Russian residence late last month.
What Dr Makarenko and his wife hadn’t anticipated, however, was that somehow word went round that the Russian ambassador had opened his home to a show of indigenous Kenyan artists, which led to almost 70 local artists showing up in the days before the Banana Hill exhibition with anywhere from 4 to 40 paintings a piece!
Fortunately, the Russians were good natured about the misunderstanding. Rather than turn anyone away, they were willing and ready to accommodate a few pieces from every artist that arrived at their front gate.
That included everyone from Tabitha wa Thuku, John Silver Kimani and Simon Muriithi to Boniface Maina and Joseph Bertiers Mbathia.
Having a large assembly hall on the same grounds as the residence meant that the ‘bandwagon bunch’ of artists could see their works displayed simultaneously with those from the Banana Hill Gallery.
A whole range of foreign diplomats attended the Saturday afternoon opening of the show, which achieved the Ambassador’s goal of exposing Banana Hill art and artists to a wider, more global audience.
But as much as that meant to the artists, what was just as meaningful was that all the exhibiting artists were invited to the opening, which meant a good time was had by all.
This article was first published in the Business Daily