By Margaretta wa Gacheru

Artists Day, the event organized by the Murumbi Memorial Trust, didn’t draw the scads of local and global artists it had anticipated meeting recently [October 25th] at the Nairobi City Park where the late Joseph Murumbi is immortalized in granite, soft metal and Kisii stone sculptures.

But the day did manage to attract three of the most important and critically acclaimed East African artists whose works are now permanently resident in the Park and whose lives were mightily transformed by the touch and attention of Kenya’s leading art patron.

Elkana Ongesa, John Odoch Ameny and Expedito Mwebe all came to testify that day to the crucial role that Murumbi had played in their lives. Unfortunately, the fourth artist whose sculpture is at the Memorial site, Francis Nnaggenda, was unable to attend, but he too valued the patronage of Kenya’s leading cultural connoisseur.

For it wasn’t just that the former Vice President and Kenya’s first Foreign Affairs Minister bought their art. In the early 1970s Murumbi joined hands with the American designer Alan Donovan to establish the African Heritage Pan African Gallery where their work was exhibited and exposed to both local and international audiences.

For instance, Elkana Ong’esa’s 12 ton Kisii stone ‘Bird of Peace’ wouldn’t be standing at the front of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris if the Murumbi’s, Joe and his wife Sheila, hadn’t had the General-Secretary of UNESCO Amadou M’Bow to dinner where he saw an Ongesa sculpture and wanted one of his own! According to the sculptor himself, Murumbi graciously gave M’Bow an uncut stone that he had already picked for Ong’esa to sculpt. That is the stone that now resides permanently in Paris, a source of pride for all Kenyans.

The Ugandan artist John Odoch Ameny had a very different relationship with Murumbi. Having met Joe, Sheila and Alan in 1976 while still working as a Fine Art Instructor at Dr, Obote College in Bora Bora, Odoch was officially in Kenya to train to be an External Examiner at Kenya Science Teacher College. But he’d managed to slip several of his soft metal sculptures into his luggage, hoping to find an art gallery keen to exhibit his work in Nairobi. “I first went to Gallery Watatu but was advised that African Heritage might have more interest in my sculpture since they were all about paintings,” Odoch recalled.

Meeting the Murumbis was definitely a turning point in his life. “When I met them, they were all busy washing Kisii stones upstairs in the gallery. I had no idea I was talking to a former [Kenyan] vice president,” Odoch said.

“Murumbi took all of my sculptures on consignment and told me they would contact me when and if the works sold. I returned to Uganda and less than a month later, I received a telegram to come for my money and bring all the work that I had. From then on, I was crossing the border to Kenya practically once a month,” he said.

I first wrote about Odoch Ameny in 1978 when he mounted his first one-man show at African Heritage. Writing in The Nairobi Times, I called his work exquisitely “outrageous” because he was the first sculptor I had known to use scrap metal so imaginatively. Making life-size soldiers who subtly mocked the Amins of Africa, his soldered metal sculptures combined humor, irony, lyricism and fine artistry.

Odoch brought those same qualities to the sculpture he’d made especially for the Murumbi Memorial in City Park. Unfortunately, thieves admired the scrap metal of his work more than the form, and thus stole the first Murumbi sculpture after the site was officially opened in March.

To ensure that the next Odoch-Ameny sculpture not be stolen like the first, Alan Donovan requested him to work in Kisii stone this time round.

“Would you believe I made this [second Murumbi] sculpture in less than a week?” Odoch asked me at the unveiling of his new work at the National Museums of Kenya, still on Artists Day.

A prolific artist whose sculptures are in museums and private collections everywhere from Israel to the USA to UK, Odoch had not been able to come to Kenya from his studio-home in Malaba, Uganda until mid-October. But the time constraint hadn’t hampered his creativity or technique. On the contrary, his ‘Universal Couple”– while being more abstract than his previous works — is no less curvaceous and exquisitely contoured.

And like the sculptures of both Nnaggenda and Expedito, Odoch’s work reflects appreciation of both Murumbis, both Joe and Sheila. That seems most fitting since it was she, a former librarian whom he met in the UK while working for Kenya’s Independence who introduced him to the joys of collecting fine art.

But in the reception hall of the National Museums of Kenya, one will not only find the ‘universal couple’ of Odoch Ameny, Nnaggenda and Expedito, each of which has a completely different artistic interpretation of this exceptionally art-loving couple. Works by all four artists, including Ong’esa, are on display for the next few weeks at least.

May I recommend that anyone who loves sculpture, appreciates East African art, and wants to be awestruck by the imaginative and emotive appeal of the art of these four great art, go see their work at the Kenya National Museum. For instance, Ong’esa has two powerful pieces there that reflect his anguished aesthetic response to the post-election violence of early 2008. Expedito has miniature combs that are finely carved and crafted with meticulous sensitivity and detail. And Odoch Ameny has three remarkable larger-than-life Telecom-man sculptures, made from discarded mobile phones that had been donated to Donovan by Safari Com CEO Michael Joseph. Recycled in the form of the three wonderful cell-phone-filled statues that are vaguely reminiscent of his Seventies soldered Amin-ish soldiers, Odoch Ameny’s Telecom-men were rumored to be headed for the forthcoming SafariCom Gallery; but until that rumor gets confirmed, they have a happy home at the National Museum.

Whether his Telecom-men end up with SafariCom or not, Odoch-ameny says he learned one important lesson from Joe Murumbi that he will never forget. “I had been thinking of applying for a job teaching at Kenyatta University College after their Art Department opened up,” Odoch recalled. This was before he came to Kenya in the mid-Eighties and became production manager at African Heritage. It was while Odoch, though still teaching, had developed a symbiotic relationship with the Murumbis, where he would create works and AH would immediately sell his art. “I asked Joe for advice on what I should do. He called me to his private office at the Muthaiga Club and told me: “Stand on your own two feet.” I took that to mean that I should continue developing my art and not go work for someone else, not to lean on anybody.”

Murumbi’s advice to Odoch Ameny is applicable to most every artist or jua kali artisan today. Self employment, however difficult it may be, is the only option that Murumbi saw for the artist to be his or her own person, to cultivate his creativity and to fulfill his dreams. That could very well be the essence of Murumbi’s Memorial since his own life exemplifies that desire—to be true to one’s self, no matter how high the price.

Margaretta Wa Gacheru can be reached on margarettag(at)hotmail(dot)com

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Showcasing the best in Kenyan Arts;Music,writing,Poetry,fine art and art reviews as well as info on emerging art trends. “Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite…getting something down.”