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Bittersweet Homecoming for Artist Ngene Mwaura after More Than 10 Years in the USA

Coming home to Kenya after living abroad for more than a decade (studying, working and painting full-time) was Ngene Mwaura’s choice.

Yet it hasn’t been easy as the artist revealed recently during an ‘Artist Talk’ on the last day of the first solo exhibition that he has had since returning from Los Angeles, US, where he has worked both as a graphic designer (creating everything from music album jackets to book illustrations) and a full-time artist.

His show entitled, ‘Reclamation,’ bespeaks the challenging nature of his journey as he’s tried to ‘reclaim’ his past while keeping his eyes focused on the present and the future.

Looking at his art, one might not see the struggles he has undergone. But having recently lost both his parents, he spoke freely about his father’s passing on just days before his return, suggesting it felt like an injustice for his dad to exit just days before he was to return. And in homage to his mother, he had painted one of the most beautiful pieces in the show.

In nearly all the paintings in ‘Reclamation,’ one will find Ngene’s multi-layered concept of an African mask. His mother’s ‘portrait’ is no exception except that he includes a kind of torso in her painting as well as symbolic features of her busy rural life; she was a diligent dhania farmer whom, he said, used to put him to work weeding her garden whenever he was with her on the family farm.

What makes his mother’s portrait the most personal of all his paintings are the three baby faces that seem to hover around the central mask of his mother in the work. Each ‘face’ represents one of her children, he said. One was himself, the others were his older brother and younger sister.


Recalling fond memories of life with his mum on the land, Ngene observed: “I think probably my having to differentiate between the weeds and the dhania from an early age is one thing that taught me to be so attentive to detail as I am today,” said Ngene, whose masks are distinctive for their meticulous attention to detail and variegated design.

Clearly, he was extremely close to his mother, and he admits he feels quite lost coming home to a world without them. Yet the exhibition also suggests that the one constant that he’s got in his experience is his art and especially his passion for painting and drawing.

Yet, if Ngene currently has a passion for African masks, be assured that his are anything but traditional (or ‘tribal’). Instead, they are delicately detailed, multicolored, multi-patterned, and nearly symmetrical in his usage of colours, designs, patterns, and facial features. What’s more, they have a sort of psychedelic feeling about them that defies their being classified or categorised as purely ‘African’. I’d call them afro-futuristic.

Asked at the Art Talk how he could do such detailed, meticulous design work if he weren’t a terribly patient man, Ngene was quick to insist that he was actually highly impatient, except when it came to his art. In his painting (with an acrylic paint pen), he said the intense, highly detailed work that he does is a form of ‘meditation’ which gives him a sense of peace and comfort.

Most of Ngene’s paintings that were in the Art Space show are similar to ones he sent to Kenya from the US just over a year ago for an exhibition held by Carol Lees at the at One Off Gallery. Both shows reflect the artist’s intensely personal attention to detail, design and a wide range of bold and beautifully diverse colours. Most of those works have been masks with big, bright, penetrating eyes as well as lashes, brows, noses, broad foreheads and enigmatic mouths that seem to be telling incredible stories.

One thing that Ngene is clearly going to miss from his life in Los Angeles is the countless live music concerts and festivals that he frequently attended, and made arrangements in advance with the live performers or the DJs to let him have space on stage to paint in tandem with the music, using his magic pen like a musical instrument.

But Ngene has already made his way to at least one local music concert and his Art Space show featured several fine-line drawings from that experience. The five or six miniature sketches could easily foreshadow a promising future where the artist will again be able to paint along with percussionists and DJs, only now he may be in Mombasa, Nakuru, Nairobi or even Nyanza, and not in LA. But only time will tell.



mkenya halisi

Sat, 10/22/2016 - 04:31

Welcome home Ngene.Kenya has changed for good.Yes issues here and there if u compare with majuu.Like u will find pple waste time here than majuu but mayb its coz we got used to fast life in diaspora .Traffic sucks n public means like matatu with loud music.Zile vitu za tene but if u ignore them knowing they exist u will enjoy life way way beta than majuu.Take one day at a time.I hope u jipangered kiasi then u wont have much problems.Karibu mtaani.
if u happen to visit limuru golf club ask for the guy who wears papa then we will catch up.

Welcome home mzee. Hope you prepared yourself financially, psychologically, socially etc before you called it quit. Just be cautious with these Kenyan folks because you by now smell dollars wherever and whatever you do. First, settle down by locking yourself in to familiarize with this new environment. Don't be in a hurry to trace your roots. Relax and have a sigh of relief from one of the most stressful world I have ever known. Enjoy the fresh air, meet immediate family first, then very close friends. Don't start splashing dollars yet, a culture we were used to at majuu. Note that after a year or so, all those people you used to help, educate, give hand outs are mean, really mean, and they used the money you send them to look like kings. After a year or so, once they realize you have nothing to offer them, they will start to evaporate like gasoline. You will also find out that all those people you called brothers or sisters, now doing well possibly because of your efforts, are beasts, and any help you might require from them is just a fallacy, a dream. Beware of conman, con artists, fraudsters...they are right there after you leave that compound. Keep your wallet to yourself for now. Note also that it will take time before you adjust to these chaotic world, be ready for upto 2-3 years boy.Everything here is disorganized and systems do not work. Don't rush to start any business venture especially in your own area from people you once knew. Take your time Sir. Mazingaombwe kajaa kote. A, one year old now after 16 years majuu na sina haraka.
Welcome to the world of potential or real time thieves, sorry for being that brunt. And make sure you have a place of your own, for renting that long will deplete your hard work fast. Be ready to be told by family and relatives alike that you have changed, really changed. Reason, hutoboki. And if you come to this world of Nakuru areas, njoo nikupe tule nyama choma pale Nyama Choma.

It's funny how we get to feel like family in these blogs...I've been wondering how Idavethi is doing...not that I know who this is but bcoz I kinda shared your journey when you were going back after you shared on Mwakilishi. Yours is the type of analysis I like to read ...after being majuu for that long....and having seen other sober/objective things you wrote there before. Glad to see you are happy...real honest about things not working great...but stress-free lifestyle.

Keep giving us that kind of objective feedback..we value it. Many of us are on our way back home..only trying to get that footing so it won't be another life of running after basics. Peace!

mkenya halisi

Sat, 10/22/2016 - 17:58

Thumbs up Sir Simon.Always remember most of us went to majuu coz we didn't have cash,good job.But after you get especially cash/investment trust me there is no need of hustling again in that majuu fast life.If u r a little bit financially stable here in kenya u will leave a beta life than that of majuu. Always remember poor kenyans leave in majuu but stable,rich kenyans leave in kenya. Thats a fact which is real.

Simon with yr own house,an income of 120,000 minimum monthly trust me u will be good but leaving outside nairobi.U can easily send yr kids to a small private school if u want which is like 30k a semester n remember u will hussle here n there and get more cash.
idavethi good lecture there. Nakuru is a good place too with affordable plots n housing.

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