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72 msafi ri PORTFOLIO WHEN SOMEONE complimented Irene Wanjiru on her clay pieces and encouraged her to have a look at what was going on at Kuona, her reaction was: " You mean this is art? To me it was just passing time." When she learned that the studio did not do wall hangings or clay, she picked up a chisel and mallet and started carving wood. " I carved two dinosaurs. I sold the fi rst one for 7,000 Kshs ( about US$ 100 at the time) and was happy because I could buy a gas canister for my mother and have something left over for myself." She used some of the leftover money to buy chunks of wood ( jacaranda, blue gum, Nandi fl ame, rosewood and grevillea) so that she could also carve at home. " At this time I was beginning to see what the wood could do. When I started I thought I should do abstract, but faces seemed to come out of the wood. I enjoyed carving in wood because I liked the feeling, the grain." Wanjiru found stone more fragile, " It kept on breaking. But it's easier to work with stone than with wood. A sculpture comes out faster in stone than one in wood," said the 42- year- old mother of four. She works in Nairobi blue stone and the much harder river stone. Now she has a four- foot-by- two- foot block of white Machakos marble in her back garden. " I didn't even know we had marble in Kenya," she said, adding that she doesn't have any plans yet for the massive piece. But two profi les have already emerged at one of the corners, she mused; they look like Sumerian kings. " Normally I don't have a theme; I go for faces or animals. I also work with roots. When I'm removing the dirt, I start seeing parts of the sculpture emerging." T hree different artists, with three different styles, yet all part of Kenya's growing contemporary art scene, KAMAL SHAH, RICHARD KIMATHI and IRENE WANJIRU all exhibit at galleries in Nairobi. Kamal Shah made the move from textile design to multimedia and full- time painting as a serious art scene was emerging in Nairobi in the mid- 1990s. Richard Kimathi was at the Creative Arts Centre doing a ' very academic' course in drawing and still life, and Irene Wanjiru was ' making wall hangings out of boredom' and helping her children fi nd and model clay for a school project. At the same time, the convergence in the Kenyan capital of a strong- willed gallery owner from California, a young Scotsman who became her assistant and a Frenchman with a mop of blond hair, laid much of the groundwork for the fl owering of contemporary art in Nairobi that led to the creation of an environment in which the three Kenyans could develop as artists. Ruth Schaffner, the owner of Gallery Watatu, and her assistant Rob Burnet sought out and supported many of the self- taught Kenyan painters who brought in their work rolled up in newspaper. Guy Laporte, director of the French Cultural Centre, organized shows for emerging painters, both trained and untrained. In 1995 Burnet convinced the Nairobi National Museum to let him use an old colonial- era house on their property as a group studio for the budding artists he was meeting, and the Kuona Trust was born. The Ford Foundation later stepped in with funding for Kuona, the GoDown Arts Centre and RaMoMA Gallery, the cornerstones of the new Nairobi art movement. Irene Wanjiru RAMOMA GALLERY THE FLOWERING OF CONTEMPORARY ART IN NAIROBI LED TO AN ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH THE ARTISTS COULD DEVELOP WHEN I STARTED I THOUGHT I SHOULD DO ABSTRACT, BUT FACES SEEMED TO COME OUT OF THE WOOD. IRENE WANJURU

msafiri 73 From an early age Richard Kimathi liked to draw and paint and was lucky enough to have an older brother who fed and lodged him for several years so he could continue painting while he studied graphic design. " I just wanted to do it, but I didn't have an idea it could lead to anything. Then I read a review of an art show in the Daily Nation, and I saw it could be a profession," said the 36- year- old. Ruth Schaffner bought three of his paintings, and he was on his way. At Kuona, Kimathi concentrated full time on his painting. His ideas came rushing out; often it looked as though he was working on several pictures at once. His oils were thick and layered, and his canvases were divided into compartments from which smaller paintings- within- paintings emerged. In 1997 he was named ' Most Promising Artist' in a national competition. Doing art in the lively, often boisterous group was " fun, but you never got time to think deeply about your work, and there was a tendency for a lot of the earlier Kuona paintings to look similar." After moving to a rented studio, he now works from home in Kiambu north of Nairobi. Kimathi's paintings have strong graphic lines and usually contain figures; but they are not always easy to read, " Most people question the subject of the Richard Kimathi painting; they want to know what it is. When I paint I sort of fantasise." Shades of dark blue and purple and men with round faces and black top hats feature prominently in his recent works. " I was trying to get something out of myself, trying to give people a picture of my deep feelings." Do his paintings have social significance? " All these paintings paint a picture of society, but they're not cartoons. Mine are sort of silent." I WAS TRYING TO GET SOMETHING OUT OF MYSELF, TRYING TO GIVE PEOPLE A PICTURE OF MY DEEP FEELINGS RICHARD KIMATHI