Coffee and Conversation at the Kioko Art Gallery

I knew it was going to be something special when Lut, my wife, placed the big box in front of me after the family dinner. I could see the excitement on all the faces round the table. I opened the box, unwrapped the paper, and took out the most beautiful, the most ingenious birthday present I have ever had.

It was a preening egret sculpture made, mainly, out of about a hundred keys. You will see the photograph. I knew only Kioko could have crafted that.

Last Saturday, I went to the Kioko Art Gallery to thank him. ‘Yes, it was quite a challenge,’ he said. ‘Lut brought in a bag of keys and said, “Please make something for John’s birthday – as long as it is a bird”. I have made sculptures out of many kinds of junk – but never out of old keys!’

So I sat with Kioko and a coffee. Like Lewis Carroll’s Walrus and the Carpenter we talked of many things: of art and artists and ambitions – of canvases and keys. He is a good talker, Kioko. He has an unlimited bag of stories; like his metal sculptures, his talk is laced with wit.

That is the difference, I think – the difference between his work and that of his many imitators, whose metal animals you can see along the jua kali section of the Ngong Road. Kioko has a deep appreciation of Kenya’s culture and its wildlife. But his art doesn’t simply copy nature – there is always a touch of quirkiness, a spice of wit, that give a happy uniqueness to his sculptures of animals and birds – and of people.

However, this is a creative gift that Kioko doesn’t want to keep to himself. He spends a lot of his time these days finding, encouraging and supporting young Kenyan artists. We talked, for example, about Kamba carvers. I have always thought that their works, unlike that of the Makonde carvers to the south, tend to be limited and repetitive in their themes – rather wooden in more than the material they use. Kioko came alive as he talked about how he is encouraging some young Kamba carvers to be more imaginative, innovative and free in what they create.

That nurturing spirit is what led Kioko to establish his gallery along James Gichuru Road. ‘I want it to be a launching pad for new and not-discovered artists,’ he said. These days, he also travels a lot. He has had a number of exhibitions in the United States, and he has relished the chance to give talks in universities and schools there, as well as in Kenya. He has begun to take on consultancies, too – collaborating with interior designers.

As well as a series of exhibitions, the Nairobi gallery holds art classes, poetry readings and music performances. There is studio space for making documentaries. And there is a well-stocked shop for a wide variety of small craft items: pottery, glassware and, of course, some of Kioko’s small and quirky pieces.

Later this month, Kioko will be holding his own exhibition in the gallery – the first one in Nairobi for over four years. It will run from 25th January to 29th February. Yes, this is a leap year. And Kioko will be making another kind of leap; in April or May he will be opening a galley in Kilifi.

In another sense of the word, Kioko has travelled a long way as an artist since some mzungu asked if he could buy what Kioko had tossed aside – some sundry metal pieces he had welded together when he was practising for his first job after leaving school: making milk churns. No doubt Kioko gives more thought to what he creates these days – my preening egret is a testament to that. But there is always a freshness about what he does and what he makes.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation