Imagine a trio of stationary zebras set
against a brilliant blue sky or the bold, red fabric swathing
a trio of tall Maasai or the bust of a black woman, carved from
wood, and sprouting glinting, silver nails bent to form the curls
of her hair.
These rarely seen artworks from Kenya can be experienced in the flesh all over Brooklyn as part of the "Kenya Art" show, organized by Five Myles gallery director Hanne Tierney.
After two years of labor, the ambitious "Kenya Art" show - an exhibition of 96 artworks in a variety of media - is on display at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, the Five Myles Gallery in Crown Heights, the Kentler International Drawing Space in Red Hook, Long Island University’s Salena Gallery in Downtown Brooklyn and the Welancora Gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant through Feb. 29.
About 50 artists are represented in this show which brings to the United States the art of eastern Africa’s Kenya as opposed to the more frequently exhibited works of western Africa. (All of the artists live and work in Kenya with the exception of Meek Gichugu, who now lives in France.)
"Kenya Art" was curated by Judy Ogana, director of the Kuona Trust Museum Art Studio and Carol Lees, program coordinator at Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art, both based in Nairobi.
On Jan. 14, Ogana and Lees joined Tierney at the Central Library for a panel discussion about this momentous borough-wide exhibition.
The show was the brainchild of Tierney, who exhibits works from Africa every two years at her gallery. On a visit to Nairobi she viewed contemporary artwork in the national museum. "To use a downtown word, it blew me away," she said.
Tierney speculated that the dearth of Kenyan art in the international scene might just be because their modern art scene is so new, although they’ve been making art since the beginning of time.
"The first art venues appeared only after Kenya’s independence, in 1963," said Tierney.
"It’s an art scene not yet dominated by the pressure of sales or financial commitments, but rather by the exhilaration that accompanies the beginning of a journey," she said.
The curators explained that their mission was to select a broad swath of artwork from contemporary Kenyan artists - and this is just the tip of that country’s iceberg.
"The works we selected are a cross-section of what could be found," said Ogana. "It’s not comprehensive. It’s not all encompassing, just a taste of what East Africa has to offer."
Performance artist Bantu Mwaura said that even the nature of Kenyan art is different from the Western concept of painting, sculpture or song.
"What’s interesting about art in Kenya is that in the Western world what is considered fine art is really an interesting fusion in Kenya," said Mwaura. "There’s a word for dance and song. It’s the same word, because there could be no song without dance."
Mwaura said he was inspired by a political cartoonist’s work, so he made a theater piece based on it.
Tierney pointed out the differences between West and East African art.
"My impression of West African artists is that they are Eurocentric, much closer to the art of the West than Kenyan artists," she said. "One of the strengths here [in this exhibit] is that it is not an imitated voice. To me it’s almost like jazz. People speak because it’s in them, not someone else’s voice."
At the Central Library there are several large, vibrant paintings tucked away in the Lobby Gallery alcove by the elevators. Art lovers will be rewarded for sleuthing them out by the sight of Simon Murithi’s "Homeward Coming," a dense, complicated composition painted and scratched onto the 12 canvases, incorporating a woman curled inside an oval with flowers. A man’s face peeks in from the left of the frame, watching the woman, or perhaps, the viewer.
Also in the Lobby Gallery is Elijah Ooko’s "A Group of Zebras," which takes the unconventional, and humorous, approach of painting a trio of the striped animals from behind.
In the library’s main lobby are numerous works on paper and on the second floor balcony are wood sculptures including "Henry’s Bust," by David Mwaniki, and a display of Frank Odoi’s comic strips, "Akokhan Lives."
Opening Jan. 17, at the Kentler International Drawing Space, will be an exhibition of works on paper including colored pencil drawings by Joel Oswaggo, born in 1944, of the disappearing way of life of his tribe, the Luo. Among the works is "The Bird Catchers," an 11-inch by 14-inch, stylized drawing of two villagers and a child hanging vibrant baskets on a towering, bending stick.
Now on display at the Welancora Gallery are paintings from two artist communities in rural Kenya: Banana Hill and the Ngecha Group. (Tierney said this African-American gallery, run by Nicole Jones, will soon be the first auction house dedicated to selling work by artists of African descent.)
Now on display at Tierney’s own Five Myles gallery and performance space, are the works of "first generation" artists such as Sane Wadu, Ancent Soi and Annabelle Wanjiku.
According to Tierney, "These [first-generation] artists are little influenced by the Western parameters of academic training. They are the originators of modern art in Kenya."
Two Kenyan artists, whose work is on display now at the Salena Gallery at Long Island University, James Mbuthia and Petersen Kamathi, will be in residence at the Five Myles gallery working on an installation of a chicken coop, which will be unveiled at the Salena for its reception on Feb. 11 from 5 pm to 7 pm. Several New York artists will be invited to create chickens for the coop, said Tierney.
The artists’ residency and a portion of the exhibit costs are being underwritten by the Ford Foundation, said Tierney.
"The Ford Foundation thought it would be very nice and important to have two artists come over and profit from the experience - which is terrific," she said. "The foundation and Rob Burnett have taken this really seriously and are thinking about what’s good for Kenya." In addition to raising the visibility of the artists, all of the works are for sale.
"This work isn’t shown, it doesn’t get out much, so it’s great to have it in this New York art scene," said Tierney.
The last piece of the borough-wide show is an exhibit of works by "second-generation" artists, including Kamathi, Ooko and Irene Wanjiru, among others, at the Salena Gallery.
Where to GO
"Kenya Art" will be on display through Feb. 29 at these locations: Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library at Grand Army Plaza (718) 230-2100, www.brookl
The entire exhibition is free and open to the public.
"Golden Libations" presents spoken-word performances at Five Myles on Feb. 15 from 4 pm to 6 pm.
Kenyan storytelling for families, with Bantu Mwaura, on Feb. 1 at 2 pm, and Swahili poetry readings in Swahili and English on Feb. 8 at 2 pm at the Central Library.
Opening reception for the Kentler International Drawing Space exhibit on Jan. 17 from 2 pm to 5 pm.
Reception for the Salena Gallery’s exhibit of Kenya’s second-generation artists, on Feb. 11, from 5 pm to 7 pm.