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Tree Talk: Creative play on nature in the great outdoors

By Mbugua Ng’ang’a | October 24th 2021

Tree talk exhibition at Tafaria Castle [Courtesy]

Nature and art are essentially two sides of the same coin, each as illuminating and as playful as the other. And when they come together, as they have done at an outdoor exhibition that opened at the Tafaria Centre for the Arts on Mashujaa Day, the result is a colourful mosaic that is at once uplifting for the soul as it is a feast for the eyes of a discerning lover of both, as it is rare for a connoisseur to love one and not the other.

Christened ‘Tree Talk’, the aim of the exhibition is to invite the audience to engage in up-close and personal conversations with trees considering that in Kenya, conservation of the environment has become an increasingly important aspect of public conversation.

“The installations are meant to invite humans to connect at a deeper level with the trees and to encourage them to appreciate their beauty and complexity,” say the four artists behind the outlier project that uses trees as the tapestry on which to paint their happy portraits of women–a theme that invokes affection for and appreciation of “mother nature”. Indeed, when they were working on the project, they invited the local community to share their knowledge and ideas as well as to learn. This was in keeping with the centre’s broad aim of transforming rural communities into centres of arts, culture and knowledge-sharing.

Joan Otieno, Jonnah Wanjohi, Patrick Ng’ang’a and Elsardt Kigen have each brought out their creative strengths to the exhibition, injecting a sense of humour by lending their voices to the trees, thus allowing them to tell their own stories. The exhibition is part of a larger play on nature, for it is set against the serene background of the Aberdare Ranges, itself a veritable theatre of conservation that necessitated the fencing of the Aberdare National Park to keep the trees in and humans out.

Each of the trees in the exhibition comes with a short story, speaking of its beauty and its uses.

“In many communities around the world, my leaves are used in households for mourning, to fumigate the air and for making wreaths,” says the cypress tree. “But on a much happier note, I make a very good live hedge and in modern times I have become the most celebrated and loved tree over Christmas.”

The branches of the tree, a native of the Mediterranean, stand like an unkempt ‘afro’ on the black and white face that Mr Kigen has painted on the stem.

Not to be outdone is the naughty bottle brush tree.

Sunny colours

“Smell me…” says the face that Ms Otieno has painted in sunny colours. “I am very aromatic and guess what? I am an important medicinal plant…”

This playfulness invites a chuckle, as much as it expands the knowledge of the audience, making a case not just for the aesthetics of each tree but also its practical uses. Indeed, all the trees are as unique as the individual ‘humans’ that they invite for a palaver on the lawns of the Tafaria Centre for the Arts, a rural creative and hospitality space that offers residences for artists to explore the limits of their creativity and birth synergies with others for collaborative co-creation, including with the local rural community.

“We believe there is a strong relationship between thriving artists and a thriving community,” says George Tafaria, the founder of the centre and who has in the past inked partnerships with institutions like Kuona Collective and Kenyatta University to offer a creative space for artists to enchant rural audiences.

For this exhibition, you can know the work of each artist by their choice of palettes. For instance, Kigen uses vivid tones to create a strong physical presence in one of his paintings, but switches to monochrome blue to create a cool calm masculine presence in another. And when he wants to create silhouette figures, he settles for stunning white.

Otieno, on the other hand, has a partiality for earth tones–greens and fawns–and her portraits have mischievous smiles, as though the subjects are up to no good. Ordinarily, most of her artworks use a wide array of mixed media, including waste materials.

In his rendition of the kei apple, Mr Ng’ang’a, or simply Ngash, goes for soft, muted tones that evoke tranquility while Otieno’s portraits are more unruly, using strong shades to reveal character and wide-open eyes that pique curiosity, daring the audience to look deeper. To find themselves or each other? May be the latter, for without nature, there can be no humans.

This unique exhibition is permanent and ought to serve as a constant reminder of the need to plant more trees while conserving existing ones. This is an important message that needs no re-emphasising since the effects of environmental degradation and climate change are painted in stark colours for all to see and beware.

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