1 January 2013

Kenya: In the Limelight - Who Is Samuel Njuguna Njoroge?

Sifting through stacks of paintings at the old RaMoMa Gallery two years ago, I was struck by six grainy paintings. Massive in size, melancholy in feel. They were sea storms painted in every shade of green.

I wondered who had so radiantly captured these small wooden vessels quivering in restless waters. Lime sky over jade sea, his style conjured peculiar, outlandish thoughts - dismal and muddy yet somehow tranquil. There was sweet discordance in his work; a bittersweet memory.

A perceptive soul painted these, I thought to myself. A sensitive old hand. A veteran of art and nature. I thought I'd like to meet him, find out how he thinks. Walking out of the gallery, I asked the attendant about Samuel Njuguna Njoroge. How could I find him?

"In fact, he is just here," was the attendant's response. I didn't understand. I peered in to the empty gallery again. "He's here, at the museum?" I asked. The attendant pointed out the door and gestured to the right. "Check under."

Following the invisible line he drew for me, I found myself at the corner of the house, slipping down a mound of red, wet dirt. At the bottom, behind the grey brick building, there were two dark recesses in the wall that looked like giant gated storage rooms. Someone stood outside, a little crouched over, working in the sun. "Excuse me. I'm looking for the artist who painted some of the works upstairs. Samuel Njuguna Njoroge," I repeated.

Moving closer, I realised why my question might have seemed rhetorical. The giant canvas that lay on the ground before the boy revealed swirling balls of olive and emerald oil mixed with gritty particles of sand. With a metal rake, he was creating spiral shapes. A textured backdrop for the coffee dinghies still floating in my memory.

And so there, midweek, on Second Parklands Avenue, behind the former Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art, Samuel and I began a dialogue about his work and his potential as an artist based in rural Kenya. This was the first time I ever thought about writing on the new generation of Kenyan contemporary artists. The ones with extreme talent and little exposure. It all began right then.

As it turns out, Samuel Njuguna Njoroge was not an old hand. Just an old soul in a new body. Only24, he told me his age has been a point of contention for customers who insist on meeting a withered old man - we laughed about this. During his residency at RaMoMa, when guests visited his studio outback, like me, they were shocked to learn that it was he who painted such works.

I met Sam in 2010, but his love affair with art began a decade earlier, in a special place close to Banana Hill. He was born in the farmlands of Muchatha and, after heading to Kisumu for high school, he returned to live with his family. His elder brother, Willie Wamuti, worked closely with artists from the Banana Hill Gallery. Inspired firsthand by feted artists like Sebastian Kiarie and Joseph Cartoon, Samuel watched carefully. He aspired to be a professional artist like them.

In 2006, almost immediately after high school, Samuel sold his first painting, to the African Art Gallery in Belfast, the proceeds of which went to the underprivileged in Africa through Food for Thought Africa. Samuel continued experimenting with mixed-media blends using acrylics, oils, glue and sand - Always evolving and improving with practice, after his wildlife series, he produced a long sequence of unique brown and red semi-abstract works, which are popular amongst the NGO crowd and with financial institutions in Nairobi.

"I've sold my works to Lawyers without Borders at the annual US Embassy get-togethers and to institutions like Deloitte and I&M Bank. I've exhibited at several venues, from Friends of the Arts (FOTA) at the International School of Kenya (ISK), to Palacina Interiors, who have helped me a lot. On Environment Day this year, I sold a few works at the Village Market," he tells us.

Samuel is currently participating in a joint exhibition, 'Challenges of a Nationhood,' with Robert Njoroge, Daniel Kinyanjui, Partrick Kariuki and sculptor Naftali Momanyi at Nairobi National Museum. This is the third time Samuel has exhibited with the National Museum of Kenya but this time around he is showcasing remaining favourites from his personal collection.

Aside from a comical, family portrait, two of Sam's paintings in particular will catch your eye - The first of these is Boat Yard. With his trademark sky of green and blue in feints and starts, it quickly grabs your attention. The waters are calmer here and there are more boats. The vessels are buoyant this time, their restful masts reaching for the limelight sky. Though a little different, the painting bears the shadowy spirit of his 2010 Water Series. To my embarrassment, I learn that the murky waves are not a riotous ocean but a calm lake. These are Sam's memories of Lake Victoria.

The second image is The Polygamist - minimal and pastoral. A rooster has partnered with two types of chickens, producing a handful of colourful, endearing chicks. In mature, earthy colours, there is a nice contrast between the usual blue- green backdrop and a frothy, mushroom coloured foreground. The reds of the rooster and the purple of the mate closest to him pop with colour while the chicken on the left endures Sam's familiar and charming sullied ruddiness. A colourist by nature, the image is perfectly balanced; a solace for tired eyes.

Listening to Sam share his experiences, I feel there's certainly a demand for exclusive and contemporary artwork - Art that is a little different to what we have gotten used to in Kenya. With effective marketing, it seems there's really no reason for artists to grumble.

A woodcut workshop with Peterson Kamwathi here and a monoprint class with Gadi Ramadhani there. Whether teaching kids to paint at Kenyatta Hospital through Art without Borders or exhibiting at Lily Pond Arts Centre in Nanyuki - Sam is definitely a progressive soul "Painting is a way for you to know yourself, what's inside of you," he says, "And there's always something more to know."

Look for Samuel Njuguna Njoroge's at Challenges of Nationhood running at the NMK until January 23rd, 2013.

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