12 January 2019

Kenya: Glad to See You, in These Tough Times

These first few weeks of the New Year can be tough.

Back to work, traffic at full strength, credit card chaos, school fees, books and uniforms.

In the art world, most exhibitions are hangovers from the run-up to Christmas until the new round of big-hitters begins.

One such Christmas show, still offering with by-now somewhat desperate seasonal goodwill, is Glad Tidings at the National Museums of Kenya.

It is on until the end of this month at the main museum on Nairobi's Museum Hill.

And if you want to get rid of that post-festive flat feeling it's worth trying to forget all the jokes about turkeys and revive your spirits with a visit.

On show in the upstairs Creativity Gallery are 25 paintings, of which 19 are by the South Sudanese artist Deng Chol, plus eight sculpture groups by Charles Bwire.

Together they suggested the exhibition to museum curators who broadened its appeal by adding the painters Ruth Nyakundi, Anwar Sadat, Yusuf Ssalu and Ngula Yusuf.

Reinforcing the seasonal theme are a series of posters, each radiating different aspects of the Christmas message; for example Hope, Forgiveness, Peace and Love, and Caring, plus of course the one that gave the show its name, Glad Tidings.

What first catches the eye is the number of Bwire's sculptures dotted around the gallery. They turn out to be mostly animal studies, but he ventures poses with his tableau of Samson and Delilah.

Amusingly indifferent to political correctness, the explanatory note posted on its plinth begins, "Another typical case of a woman betraying a man."

Oh dear.

Bwire catches Samson asleep and about to have his hair cut off by Delilah who with a knife in each hand thus robs him of his strength. In the Bible it is Delilah's servant who cuts the hair, not Delilah herself, but why let the story get in the way of dramatic composition?

The sculptor, based at the National Railway Museum art gallery, is on safer ground with his animal studies. There is a robust eagle, for instance, and a leopard on a bough. Then too his modelling of rhinos is confident, as are his horses, a buffalo and a couple of lion trophy heads in bas-relief.

Even the Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo that killed 35 Indian railway workers in 1898 get a look in. Bwire shows them correctly without manes and includes, this time, a PC plea for the repatriation of their stuffed remains from the Field Museum of Chicago.

A charming study of Mzee the giant tortoise and his unlikely friend Owen the rescued hippo that lived at Haller Park, Bamburi, calls for attention too.

An evangelist for sculpture, Bwire bemoans the fact that there are, as he sees it, too few sculptors in East Africa and of them not enough using the cold casting method he favours. He therefore filmed a helpful tutorial of how to go about the process. You can find it on YouTube.

Bones

The key to competence in animal sculpture is a thorough understanding of anatomy and the organisation of the bones beneath the skin. And that applies as equally to robust expressionist pieces as it does to the more traditional animalier tradition (which Bwire follows) started by the French sculptors of the mid 19th century.

Happily, in the nearby Aga Khan Hall of the museum, is an exhibition that could have been mounted just for Bwire.

It is all about those bones and tells us the six main functions of a skeleton -- and I had no idea there were that many -- supported by numerous examples.

The whale is amazing, the variety of skulls with attached horns astonishing, and the Big Five are properly present. I felt a bit sorry, though, for the tortoise that without its shell looked like a cartoon character that has crashed spreadeagled onto its little podium.

This is a detailed, informative and fascinating show for which the museum deserves great credit.

Back in the Creativity Gallery, Deng Chol's paintings dominate the exhibition, in numbers at least. His works, mainly abstract but with a couple of figurative pieces thrown in, are mostly small and with their rich palette and intricately layered and combed surfaces glow like jewels.

From South Sudan, Chol is now based at the Kobo Trust studios in Dagoretti.

Anwar Sadat shows just two paintings, including what for me was the finest in the hall, Where We Belong-I. Typically Sudanese, its grid of symbols from the natural world resonated against an off-white background, giving it authority and presence.

Ruth Nyakundi demonstrated a strong sense of rhythm in both her works; a group of five figures called Peaceful Conversations and her reductive study of 60 or so Maasai in Warriors of Peace.

Yusuf Ssalu made an impact with his sole composition of what appeared to be glittering baubles from a Christmas tree, while Ngula Yusuf, also with only one painting, took the season's TV offerings as his starting point with a pattern of screens called Cable Manifestations.

So were my spirits suitably uplifted during this lull in the year's artistic activities? They were -- and hardly a turkey in sight.

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