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Mwili, Akili Na Roho 

27th October 2022 - 28th January 2023
NCAI, Rosslyn Rivera, Nairobi


10 Figurative Painters from East Africa

Don Handa, Curator, Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute


The Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI) was established in 2020 as a not-for-profit arts space that promotes and preserves visual art in East Africa. Building on a deep and rich history of artistic creation and collaboration amongst artists, art spaces, and institutions, both private and public, NCAI seeks to highlight the work of artists from this region, to become a platform for critical dialogue around their practice(s). Paying attention to the specific cultural context, NCAI’s exhibitions program is deeply influenced by what has come before us and it is crucial that we actively engage with the origins and evolution of the artistic landscape of East Africa as we know it today.


In 2022, painting is among the foremost modes of expression adopted by visual artists in Eastern Africa. Within the realm of painting, figuration remains one of the dominant approaches. Mwili, Akili Na Roho: 10 Figurative Painters from East Africa presents over forty works by ten artists from the region; six from Kenya, three from Uganda and one from Tanzania. Mwili, Akili Na Roho is a cross section of figurative painting from East Africa, comprising a multigenerational group of artists varied in their backgrounds, thematic concerns, and formal strategies. The work of these ten artists; Sam Ntiro, Elimo Njau, Asaph Ng’ethe Macua, Jak Katarikawe, Theresa Musoke, Sane Wadu, Peter Mulindwa, Chelenge van Rampelberg, John Njenga and Meek Gichugu, forms an entry point for a deeper engagement with the genealogies of artistic creation in the region, and the enduring influence of certain ideas and institutions in the creation, dissemination and reception of art in East Africa.


The selection of works in this exhibition calls attention to certain ideas that are key to understanding the History of Art in East Africa, for which the artists adopt various strategies. Chief among these are: a preoccupation with the relationship between human beings and the natural environment; and ongoing commentary on socio-political climate in their respective contexts. Elimo Njau and Theresa Musoke’s relationship with the landscape moves beyond direct representation, yielding semi-abstracted, hybridized forms. Peter Mulindwa’s work draws on Bunyoro mythology to produce allegorical accounts of life under the rule of Idi Amin whilst Sane Wadu appropriates Christian iconography to illustrate the relationships between the citizenry and their leaders. Jak Katarikawe’s ostensibly quaint, anthropomorphic compositions offer a glimpse of complex interpersonal relations, contrasting with the fantastical creations of Meek Gichugu which suggest continuous metamorphoses between human and animal, known and unknown. In the work of Asaph Ng’ethe Macua, Chelenge van Rampelberg and John Njenga, one encounters personal narratives of individual and shared everyday lives. The capacious nature of the works is such that these themes recur and overlap, yielding a broader picture of how these artists set out to imagine the lives they have led.


The combination of educational backgrounds, exhibition histories, and convergences in their ideas and influences throughout the careers of the artists in Mwili, Akili Na Roho offer insight into the development of spaces for artistic production in the region, the opportunities available to these artists at different points in their careers, and the cross pollination that marks art making in East Africa to date. Five out of 10 of the artists received formal artistic education at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. The remaining five pursued a combination of autodidacticism and broad networks of learning and exchange. It is these networks too that have for a long time fostered creative production, and provided spaces for collaboration and reciprocal influences in making. The artists themselves and their work have traveled far and wide, with some of them living and working between two of the three nations represented in the exhibition.  Works included in the exhibitions are drawn from collections in Kenya, Uganda, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.

featuring contributions by Professor George Kyeyune of Makerere University, Lutivini Majanja, and Asaph Macua Ng’ethe.

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