Sunday, May 19, 2013

This Is An Exhibition Review

This is supposed to be an exhibition review, with a twist. I still hate exhibition reviews... I was once fired before getting the job because I playfully gave the prospective 'employer' a ten word review. "If you've not done so, go see this exhibition yourself." It was okay…ish as it was one of those where everything seemed wrong. From the work, to the space. And light. And arrangement. And cocktail! The writer who reviewed it summed it up as Amazing!

Two Fridays back, I attended a show that was a first in many aspects in Nairobi. Titled XTRACT.SUBTRACT.ABSTACT, it was conceptualized and curated by the new sheriff in town. Circle Art Agency, a collective of of Danda Jaroljmek, former director of Kuona Trust and coordinator of  the Triangle Network’s African partners; Fiona Fox, who worked as Head of Development for Exhibitions across Tate Britain and Tate Modern and Arvind Vohora, photographer & founding trustee of Kuona Trust who have teamed up to “give talented artists greater visibility and opportunities and allow more people – both local and international – to benefit from and enjoy the region’s lively and fast developing art scene.”

That’s a tough role to want to play given that in Nairobi, everyone gets into the art scene to promote, help, nurture, support, blah blah blah the artist. It probably only Carol's On Off Gallery and William Ndwiga's Little Art Gallery, that avoid these words and are just talking sales.  Which is good. It clearly defines relations and expectations.

Since its inception, Circle have done a handful of quiet gigs of presenting and marketing Kenyan contemporary culture to different audiences and that Friday had their most visible outing to date. They took over the PwC tower/Delta House ground floor right in the center of Westlands and transformed it into a contemporary art space. What in art lingo would be referred to as a Pop-up exhibition.

For the uninitiated a Pop-up space can loosely be described as a non-conventional exciting, unique exhibition site secured for temporary exhibitions. Most of -Pop-up exhibitions are set up in spaces that are not traditionally artsy and these sites may include vacant storefronts, abandoned buildings and public spaces. Defining features of pop-up galleries are that they come and go, and typically appear in places not usually associated with art exhibitions. They possess an element of surprise in which the audience kind of stumbles upon the art when and where they don’t expect it, thus altering the experience of seeing it. Pop-up exhibitions often expand the available space for artists to show their work, and give artists a kind of curatorial control that standard gallery shows would normally not allow. 

Locally, a handful of people have experimented with this concept that is widely common in the west but Circle executed it with panache! They looked for a grand stage.

As the title suggests, the exhibition featured abstract works by artists resident in Kenya. I'll intentionally skip the art part because Justus Kyalo, Sybilla Martin, Emily Odongo, Sidney Mang’ong’o, Xavier Verhoest, Jason Corder aka Farouk, Peter Walala and Michael Wafula all perfomed brilliantly. All did a good job. No, great job. I was taken aback by Wafula's new body of work but Kyalo, my favourite East African abstract painter stole it for me. I need to find a way of getting another 'Kyalo' into my modest collection.

Delta is one of the numerous skyscrapers taking over the Nairobi skyline. An architectural gem that will house multinationals and high flying corporations. It is still under construction but already ruling the Westlands airspace. The expansive ground floor has been reserved for a series of high end restaurants to feed the men/women yet to occupy the tower. Hmmm... a really well thought out plan! But before they settle in, Circle talked to someone and temporarily took over, brought in art and transformed the work-in-progress lobby into a Pop-up exhibition and.! No review can do the exhibition justice.

In my brief encounters of dealing with artworks and spaces (I intentionally avoid the use of the noun curator in any form), I must admit the exhibition was very well arranged. Considering it was a temporary-under-construction space, the set up was visually appealing. The selection of artists wouldn't have been better. I loved the quotes from mainly departed abstract masters but couldn't agree more with Miriam Syowia-Kyambi that it would have been really good to also have quotes from some of the participants. Maybe the ever quiet Sidney. The exhibition had a special preview for targeted immediate consumers and a following day opening. Which seems to have worked well for everyone.

Some may argue that "this is just another art exhibition." and they'd be very right. But I guess it's not about right/wrong here. It's important (for me, at least) to note that someone acknowledged the inadequacy (for lack of a better word) of existing art spaces and decided to find an alternative thereby putting into practice a word mostly understood only theoretically in Nairobi contemporary. It's easy to label any exhibition outside a conventional art space as a Pop-up exhibition. It's not up to me to define the parameters of what is and what is not Pop-up but this was a really good, and important (non hostile) takeover. Most artists agreed it was a good exhibition featuring a good mix of artists. They all would have loved to be part of such a cool art event. The exhibition set the standards bar quite high. Good for the scene and tough for Circle as we now have the Delta/PwC/ XTRACT.SUBTRACT.ABSTACT show as a reference point.

I went back on Tuesday. With daylight and not visually or judgmentally impaired by good wine, cheese, cold beer or mass euphoria, it even looked better. Was good to have the whole Circle posse to myself and even better to hear from them that they were happy with their effort and are looking up to the next challenge.

What this teaches us in our not-so-young art scene is that our problem is not physical infrastructure. We have alot of spaces (and people to man them) what may be lacking is the belief/confidence that we have a way around what is there. We just need to let donor funding/annual reports stop holding us hostage and do what we believe in. Make good art and do good shows. At the end of the day, that's what is important. It is what we recall.

XTRACT.SUBTRACT.ABSTACT was made in Kenya. And as the curtain came down, there is some sadness that Delta/PwC is not an artspace. And we have to live with the harsh reality that we may never see art there again (except the yet to be installed Eltayib Dewalbait and Dennis Muraguri’s commissions at the main entrance) instead, next time it'll be fancy kitchen equipment catering for a high end capitalism inspired food court. But, amid all these, we’ve found the tunnel me thinks. Whether there really is light at the end of it, or it’s just an oncoming train, is irrelevant and a story for another day. But everytime I see a new building coming up or an empty space, I secretly wish Circle Art Agency, or someone who learnt a thing or two from them, would take it over.

Congrats Circle Art Agency. What next? We're waiting to see what the new sheriff in town's got in store for us.


  1. I would have loved to attend. They got some good publicity - I only saw it on the press. There's always space to be taken over, we just need a little creativity and some cash to "pop-it-up".

    My $ 0.02

  2. I wonder, was not the Ramoma made for this ? To have a permanent space for contemporary art ? They have been very quiet lately...

  3. I read this and I wanted to be the fourth person in the Cirle Art Agency. They are doing a good job. I also like when you put in writing the observable...Artists often want to just draw/paint/print/allotherartstuff.
    You are the only artist I know/follow who tweets, which again is a good thing. Keep up the good work.

  4. I read this and I wanted to be the fourth person in the Cirle Art Agency. They are doing a good job. I also like when you put in writing the observable...Artists often want to just draw/paint/print/allotherartstuff.
    You are the only artist I know/follow who tweets, which again is a good thing. Keep up the good work.