Little-known young artist on the verge of breaking into big time

Saturday October 7 2017

Artist Elias Mwongera with one of his

Artist Elias Mwongera with one of his paintings.  MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NATION 

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Elias Mong’ora first came to Nairobi fresh from Tetu in Nyeri County back in 2011.

He had not turned 20 yet (he will reach the ripe old age of 25 come November).

But already, his artwork spoke volumes about where this young painter was likely to go, career-wise.

Whether sooner or later, it was bound to be ‘sky high’.

That is because Elias’ art combines familiar subject matter with a slightly impressionistic flair, an early mastery of perspective and technique, including his evocative way of blending colour and shade.

It’s a style that has been distinctly his own from the outset. And even now, as his second one-man exhibition is on since last weekend at Polka Dot Gallery in Nairobi, his paintings still reflect that winning combination of realism mixed with a magical impressionism.

But back when he first arrived in Nairobi, some might have described Elias as ‘precocious’, knowledgeable ‘before his time’.

Others might have called him a ‘prodigy’, especially as he is not a graduate of any art school, be it local or foreign.

Instead, he confirmed to Saturday Nation that he has had mentors from whom he has learned a great deal. He might not remember their names but they are easily found, he says, on the Internet.


“My main art teacher was the Internet, more specifically it was YouTube,” says Elias who hadn’t come to Nairobi to find anyone specifically to work with since there were few local artists known to him at the time.

All he knew was he needed to be here since there were important art activities happening right now.

“I was fortunate to find my way to Brush tu (Artists Collective in Buru Buru),” says Elias, who currently has a studio in the Phase 1 house that the artists working there (specifically Boniface Maina, Waweru Gichuhi and Michael Musyoka back then) chose to renovate and transform into a series of studios.

“I’d read somewhere that they had an opening so I quickly applied and got called to come straight away, which is what I did,” adds Elias, whose first solo exhibition in Nairobi was at The Little Gallery, which was also based in Karen at the time.

He began getting into group shows practically from the moment he stepped into Brush tu, starting with one assembled by a German art collector and biker named Andre Pilz, who wanted to take Kenyan artists’ work to Europe. It was Pilz who first showed me Elias’ art. That was several years back, but even then I could see that he had a special style of dreamy realism.

The first time we saw him steer his style into a more abstract path to painting was during a group show organised at the British Institute of East Africa. That exhibition is where he exposed the first painting in a conceptual series that he would call ‘Footprints’.

“The paintings are layered in terms of time and space,” he explains. Footprints 1 began a process of developing the concept and creating art that would reflect the passage of time and the people who had passed by and made an impression on the space.

Why ‘Footprints 1’ is important to recall is because Elias’s ‘Footprints 3’ just won him a place in the top 10 among African artists who had submitted their work to the APSA-Barclay’s ‘L’Atelier’ Art Competition in Johannesburg.

His achievement was announced on September 15, which is also when the top prize went to another Kenyan artist, Maral Bolouri for her installation entitled ‘Mothers and Others.’

Elias had already booked his current solo show before he had won his trip to Jo’burg where ‘L’Atelier’ organised a two-day workshop for all the top 10 winners and took them round to the major galleries in town.

Since he has been back, what is clear from his conduct is that Elias has not allowed his early success to go to his head. (The same could be said when he won a top prize at the Manjano Art Competition two years back.) He remains at Brush tu, where he continues to paint alongside the founders of the collective as well as a number of newcomers who like the cool, comfortable and creative vibe that these artists give off.

What is interesting about his Polka Dot show is that Elias has only hung realistic portraits of friends and a few professional models. The abstract approach that earned him his latest prize is only visible as a backdrop to his delicately textured and carefully drawn portraits of friends like Boni, Becky, Abdul and Tosh.