The Kioko Art Gallery

‘Wow!’ the lady said, as she stepped inside Kioko’s new place. ‘This could be an art gallery in New York.’

Kioko’s gallery is alongside the Lavington Shopping Centre along James Gichuru Road. You can’t miss the big rooftop sign. The lady was Vickie, a friend from the days when she and Kioko were studying at Kenyatta University. I understand why she said what she said. The gallery is smart; it’s vibrant – and its spaces are full of fascinating sculptures and paintings.

You must know of Kioko – the man who makes metal sculptures. If you have gone to the Kenyatta International Airport you will have seen his elephants on the roundabout. And you will have seen the many metal animals for sale in the jua kali markets along Ngong Road – made by his imitators, who Kioko prefers to call his disciples.

I am lucky to have a couple of his works. One is of a young vulture, wings outspread, making a dodgy landing. The other is The Embrace – of Philda consoling her husband Elimo Njau, when their Paa ya Paa gallery burnt down and artists donated pieces to raise money for the rebuilding.

It was fun to meet Kioko again. It’s always fun to meet Kioko again. He was at the gallery with his old friend and now business partner, Joe Onsando, the new Curator of the gallery, Iman Onsando, and Shilluh Mwangi, the Creative Director.

I enjoyed hearing again the story of how Kioko’s sculpting began. He had been sent down from Kenyatta University for being caught up in some student protests there. He got a job as an apprentice welder in Nakuru with an aluminium company making milk churns. It was a boring job, and he spent hours practising welding on odd bits of metal and then throwing the pieces aside onto a heap of junk. One day a local mzungu farmer, who had come for churns, took a liking to some pieces he saw on the pile. He asked Kioko if he could buy them. And so Kioko’s career as a sculptor took off.

His metal sculptures are always imaginative – and often witty. There are many good examples in the gallery. But he is sharing it with other artists – four of them currently. Among them is a young painter called Alan Simba. His paintings are, yes, of the kind and quality you might well find in a New York art gallery – a quirkily cluttered interpretation of modern urban life – a world away from the depiction of the big five and Masai warriors that used to be the stock in trade of Kenyan artists pandering to the assumed taste of tourists.

Kioko is enthusiastically positive about the way more and more Kenyans are buying art – and the way Kenyan interior designers are using Kenyan art rather the abstract equivalents of elevator music. He is also positive about the many young artists that are at work these days – youngsters who have been exposed through travel and training in different countries. And a number of them will find a place in the Kioko Gallery – a place to create, to interact, and to share ideas.

‘We now have a young and vibrant generation in Kenya,’ Kioko says. ‘I am going to open a Pandora’s box for them – things are going to explode here.’

There is plenty of space for that explosion at the gallery – space for artists’ work stations, a gift shop, and performing arts as well. Soon there will be a café.

From 27 September to 14 October there will be the ‘Fashion meets Art’ exhibition, where the fashion will be brought by Kenya Fashion Awards. But every day of the week the gallery is open from 9am to 7pm. There is a small entry charge of 300 shillings. It will be money well spent!

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

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