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Using art as a tool for conservation

By Peter Muiruri | May 5th 2016

It is not every day that you walk into the lobby a five-star hotel to find artists with paintbrushes, oil and canvas doing their thing. This was the scene at the Villa Rosa Kempinski, Nairobi, for the better part of last week as 15 artists created and showcased their work as guests and hotel workers went on with their business.

Among them was Collins Okello, famous for sketching Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Barack Obama’s portraits. Dubbed Wasanii Jukwaani (Artists on Stage), the five-day event held in partnership with Kuona Trust was meant to create awareness for the conservation of elephants, coming hot on the heels of the ivory burning in Nairobi last Saturday.

According to the hotel’s General Manager Manish Nambiar, the idea of having the artists at the hotel was “to give a voice to the unheard” in contrast to the many conservation seminars that were held all over in support of wildlife conservation.

“They were positioned in public areas where they had the opportunity to interact with the hotel guests, as well as lovers of art, taking them through a step-by-step process of how they come up with unique pieces,” said Nambiar.

Last Saturday, the pieces of art were auctioned at the hotel with an elephant painting by Samuel Githui getting a bid for Sh500,000. Some of the proceeds will be donated to Wild Aid for Elephant Conservation.
Githui, who has a diploma in Fine Art and History, centres his work on the day-to-day impressions of the people and typical activities around them such as political subjects and personal issues. He has travelled widely, showcasing his work globally.

His current practice tries to investigate the ever moving and shifting societal trials and tribulations that have always been part and parcel of him. Then there is Clavers Odhiambo who works around human bodies, and likes exploring skin textures such as old faces and wrinkled skin.

Twenty-seven-year-old Okello made a painting of Obama, which the US president was given as a gift during his visit to Kenya in July last year. Okello shot to fame when he did a painting of Kenyatta and gifted it to the president on his birthday.

Using charcoal and acrylics, Okello draws his inspiration from nature, capturing moments such as faces and landscapes, with a special focus on human figures. His piece last week depicted two pieces of ivory, broken at various points to highlight the need to smash trade in ivory.

Another hilarious painting was by Boniface Maina and depicted a poaching kingpin seated on an ivory throne, smoking a cigar and enjoying good wine – all at the expense of the elephants.

“Kenyan artists need a platform where they can directly connect with the market. The hotel offers the perfect stage where guests get to see their work firsthand rather than visiting galleries elsewhere,” said Nabiar. The event will be held annually to boost the livelihoods of young and upcoming artists while highlighting a central theme.

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