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GALLERIES: Always something cheery up the hill



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Colourful, bright and bursting with life; yes, once again Christmas has come early with the annual mixed exhibition at Banana Hill Art Centre.

I must declare an obvious interest… I have a soft spot for Banana Hill.

There is always something to entertain, amuse or admire — and often all three at once — either on the walls or among the two or three thousand paintings and sculptures (no-one has counted them lately, apparently) in the three open-to-all storerooms and in the racks that line the cavernous main hall.

And almost better still, there are occasionally things that initially horrify, but usually end up eliding into the “amuse” category.

For it is at Banana Hill that I saw the two most appalling paintings I have seen in more than 20 years of gallery going in Kenya.

Past sins should be forgiven so I won’t name the artists; suffice it to say one was a painting of a lion, sort of, and the other a woeful take on the Mona Lisa. I have a soft spot for those, as well… about 6ft by 3ft at the bottom of the garden.

This year’s offerings are as varied as ever; the good, the bad and the ugly crammed together fighting for our attention in a happy, splashy riot of colours, shapes and compositions.

On the walls are 35 paintings by 22 artists priced to suit every pocket, with this year’s crop ranging from only $10 to an impressive $6,500.

In the eye-popping world of Banana Hill, low prices do not mean poor quality.

For example, at the giveaway $10 each — less than many a lunch — are a group of watercolour drawings by the prize-winning painter (and fine arts lecturer) Anne Mwiti.

They are of women’s heads, a typical one called Little Sister showing confident brushwork offering an exemplary economy of line. Properly presented — that is, cleanly mounted and sympathetically framed — they would indeed look splendid.

At the other end of the price scale is a large painting by the gallery owner and First Generation artist Shine Tani, called Cleansing Ceremony, in his distinctive palette of blues and apple green. It was completed in 2007 and references the notorious post-election violence that rocked Kenya, showing a traditional healer between two warring figures whom he is purifying in the hope of bringing peace.

It reflects on an important part of the nation’s history and is by an established painter, if you can afford it. And there are those who can.

Between these extremes lies a host of talent including work by many well known names.

Patrick Kinuthia, for instance, offers two portraits of young women (but not one of his far better landscapes, at least not on the walls although there is probably one stacked up somewhere), while other big hitters include Kivuthi Mbuno with three of his meticulous fantasy landscapes featuring ravaging wild beasts and Akamba hunters locked in struggle.

There too is Sebastian Kiarie, employing his more recent cheerful palette — red, yellow and swathes of purple instead of his traditional caramel, cream and biscuit — to show us A Couple by the Window (or the Widow, as the catalogue endearingly has it) and Alan Githuka who is showing a typical congregation of disembodied heads in Crowd II.

Githuka has been quiet of late and it is good to see his idiosyncratic paintings back in the market place.

As always, Shine Tani has brought a regional flavour to the show.

Uganda has several representatives, including Ronex Ahisimbiwe, with a large and darkly modulated canvas, Ronald Kerago, Godfrey Sseguja and the excellent Cliff Kibuuka, whose Way Home shows us an earthen track winding through a village, caught as the evening sun falls on receding lines of shacks; the place and time of day succinctly realised through form and colour, underpinned by a taut and accurate structure.

From Tanzania, there is Haji Chilonga, who has become a popular addition to the Kenyan art scene, with a large painting of cattle and another of people sheltering beneath umbrellas (an increasingly popular theme and appropriate in these short rains) plus around a dozen Tingatinga boards by T.M. Mlopeni.

Local Kenyan painters abound, including Jeff Wambugu, Peter Kibunja, John Ndung’u and Martin Muhoro, and a couple of large landscapes that turned out to be joint works by Tani and his talented wife Rahab Shine; mostly Rahab from the look of them.

All this and in the furthest storeroom, displayed casually high on the wall are a couple of super-realist paintings of zebras, by the Ugandan Sebandeke Med… almost thrown away in a back room yet so well done (even if the heads are a teeny bit too small), that they would give any professional wildlife artist a run for their money.

For sure, one thing you can say about most of the Ugandan painters is they get the basics right.

The Romans said, “There’s always something new out of Africa.” They should have added, “And something to cheer us up at Banana Hill.”

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