alexa The Nairobi art scene is vibrant, and the world has taken note - Daily Nation

The Nairobi art scene is vibrant, and the world has taken note

Friday September 12 2014

 Clockwise: Gor Soudan, Paul Onditi, James Muriuki and Peterson Kamwathi. Right: Olivier Pendergast’s oil canvas painting titled ‘Kawangware Boy in Rain.’ Nairobi artists have a luminary status abroad yet saunter the streets of their hometown unbeknownst to other Kenyans.

Clockwise from top left: Gor Soudan, Paul Onditi, James Muriuki and Peterson Kamwathi. Right: Olivier Pendergast’s oil canvas painting titled "Kawangware Boy in Rain." Nairobi artists have a luminary status abroad yet saunter the streets of their hometown unbeknownst to other Kenyans. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Zihan Kassam

The Nairobi art scene harbours an intriguing breed of visual artists. Living a peculiar life, these superstars have a luminary status abroad yet saunter the streets of their hometown unknown to fellow Kenyans.

Undeclared and unhindered, their anonymity is both a blessing and a curse.

From London to Los Angeles, Cyrus Kabiru’s eccentric sunglasses made of found objects have impressed a considerable audience.

e is represented by Ed Cross Fine Art in the UK and has been an official TED fellow since 2013. Kabiru wanders about his studio at Kuona Trust Arts Centre in Kilimani, Nairobi, relatively inconspicuously. Far away from his overseas admirers, he concentrates on his creations.

Sculptor and charcoal guru Peterson Kamwathi is another humble creature.

Applauded internationally for his provocative social commentary and technical aptitude, his works are recognised in the UK, the US, El-Salvador, Austria, Holland, Finland, and South Africa.


Kamwathi walks to and from his fine art classes at Kenyatta University incognito every day.

As we visit different arts establishments to see the faculties and frailties on display, one of the hippest ventures in Nairobi is the new ‘Art Cabinet’ on Kinduruma Road in Kilimani.

It was put up by mixed-media prodigy Paul Onditi, who  sold his work ‘Smoken Smokey’ for £3,225 (Sh374,000) at the Africa Now, Bonhams Auction in London in May.

A white-walled cargo container stands next to his own studio, the space serving as a miniature gallery, where Onditi will curate exhibitions.


Onditi trained in Germany for many years. In the last few years, he has impressed his followers with his distinct concoction of chemicals applied to laminate sheeting.

His light-headed character, ‘Smokey’, who appears in most of his work, reveals the evolution of a simple Kenyan fellow, who is exposed to the glamour and brutality of capitalism, consumerism, and corruption.

Onditi opened the Art Cabinet in August with a farewell exhibition for artist-photographer Tahir Karmali, who, after completing a year at Kuona Trust, left to pursue his master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York.

On our visit, we found Onditi outside the Art Cabinet painting light boxes.

He was preparing for his show, ‘Pipes that Bind, Faces in Places’, which opened at the Goethe-Institut, Nairobi, on September 11.

The exhibition, which runs until October 8,  explores the existence of the ‘pipes’ or ties that bind us to our social, political or economic positions.

On the other side of town, at Carol Lee’s reputable One Off Gallery in Rosslyn, off Limuru Road, we observe an unlikely pairing between Kenyan artist Peter Elungat and American Olivia Pendergast, who is new on the scene.

Aside from the fact that both use oil paint to create figures with elongated necks and tiny heads, little else seems to bring their works together. We learn that they have never met in person. Still, it’s interesting to think about artists oceans apart, who are connected by similar veins of inspiration.

Elungat, from Malaba, Busia County, paints his routine women hovering mid-air.


Pendergast produces an interesting translucency in the poignant faces of her purposely distorted figures.

Using a captivating palette, where soft pastels colours contrast with bold colours, the African figures featured in Pendergast’s work clasp their hands together and repose on chairs in tender, melancholy gestures.

Resting in Kisumu, after having travelled extensively since February, former Kuona Trust artist Gor Soudan is back in Kenya for a short stretch before moving to Cape Town for school.

A painter and sculptor of immense talent, Gor thrives in the conceptual realm, creating sculptures from ‘protest-wire’ and other interesting mediums.

Morphed figures, furtive crows, large nests and wrathful birds seem occupy his strange world. Gor’s works have turned the heads of many international collectors.

After a pop-up show in Freetown, Sierra Leone, followed by a residency at Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT) and a collaboration with American artist Albert Samreth at Yamoto Gendai Gallery in Tokyo, Gor has decided to publish a limited edition book called Bubbles and Shells, Protest Wire 2014.

It looks at his protest wire creations and also bubbles and shells ontologically, revealing his findings as researched in Nairobi, Freetown and Tokyo.

The book will be launched in late October at The Bus, a new project space in Westlands. Gor will also display the book at the second annual 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London.

Until then, our deeply philosophical friend has begun reflecting on his childhood years in preparation for his next exhibition.

 “The idea in my mind is monuments to childhood. I am tracing my footsteps, being back in Kisumu after a long hectic time, half around the world, just processing and working to see what I come up with.

The show will be in Kisumu in December,” he says.

Walking through Kuona Centre, we are impressed by Jackie Karuti’s new mixed media series, still untitled, featuring obscure human figures behind bars or hung by a noose.

Her works speak of our self-destruction as a society; how we impose rules and regimes that imprison us.

Yassir Ali surprises us with a few tasteful nudes that were amongst other works in his solo show at The Shifteye Gallery at Priory Place (Kilimani) last month.


The brilliant Wycliffe Opondo (Wiki) moves us with his more monotone acrylic paintings of wistful railway tracks that vanish into the distance.

Finally, we visit the Lang’ata home of leading Kenyan photographer James Muriuki and talented performance and installation artist Miriam Syowia Kyambi, who in July held a live performance at The GoDown Arts Centre (Between Us). Both Muriuki and Kyambi have a prominent international profile and are regularly invited to exhibit their works and participate in workshops abroad.

Despite their enormous accomplishments, artists such as Miriam Kyambi remain somewhat anonymous.

We catch Kyambi preparing a talk for the 1:54 Fair in London, where, together with Gor Soudan and James Muriuki, they will represent Kenya again.

With the recent shift in focus on the international art scene, the lens seems to have zoomed in on East Africa.

It is a tragedy  that East African artists are often appreciated more by foreigners than their fellow citizens. The truth is that local interest is trickling in.

With superstar personalities like Sudanese artist Rashid Diab dropping works off for the Circle Art Auction and talented Ethiopian Zerihun Seyoum coming to Kenya to exhibit at Talisman Restaurant at Karen, Nairobi, if you don’t venture out see the genius on display, you miss the chance to meet the wits of our society.