Gabriel Gonzalez was worried. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, things looked bleak for tourism in Kenya, even for the kind of eco-tourism that Gabby ran through his Kobo Safaris.
Those dark days were in sharp contrast to the golden years of Kobo when this enlightened Spanish entrepreneur had blended Kenyan tourism with humanitarian efforts to assist the poor.
It was during those successful times that Gabby established the Kobo Trust Foundation and also began making space available at the trust for local artists to set up their studios and create artworks in their own time.
It was an exceptional mix, blending art, tourism, and humanitarian aid, all of which were and still are important to Gabriel who is also an avid collector of Kenyan art.
“It’s probably his love for Kenyan art that kept Gabby from sending us artists away,” says Onyis Martin who is one of the first artists to set up his studio at Kobo’s 534 Riara Road base.
“We were also supporting many children and I couldn’t let them down,” Gabby told the BD Life soon after Kobo held its first art salon last Thursday night.
Thinking behind idea
Ultimately, he chose not to shut down his safari business or to send the artists away. Instead, he proposed that Kobo artists stage an art salon, not simply an art exhibition, last week in the Trust’s large assembly hall.
The distinction between an art salon and an exhibition may not be widely known. But if one recalls someone like the acclaimed art collector Gertrude Stein who with her brother Leo, regularly held salons in their home in Paris in the 1920s, one might get a hint of what Gabby was thinking about.
For the Steins, their salon was where people came to see the most contemporary artworks of the emerging artists of those times, men like Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris, and even Ernest Hemingway.
What that might mean within the Kenyan context is that Gabby probably sees the artists exhibiting in the art salon as being Kenya’s equivalent of the leading contemporary artists of our times.
The four artists whose works are included in the salon in addition to the eight who are working currently in studios at Kobo are easily among the top tier of local artists. They are Peter Elungat, Kaloki Nyamai, Cyrus Kabiru, and Nedia Were.
All four have the distinction of being better known outside the country than within (although this reality is true of many local artists). All four are also having exhibitions overseas right now, either in Dubai, New York, London, or Paris. (But again, they’re not the only Kenyans exhibiting abroad right now).
The four are currently sharing the salon with artists who are equally inspired but also have studios at Kobo. Among them are Onyis Martin, Paul Njihia, David Thuku, Taabu Munyoki, Nadia Wamunyu, Timothy Ochola, Rasto Cyprian, Iona Mccreathe, and Okamar Onesmus.
When asked how they got involved in the salon show, both Elungat and Kaloki recalled that they previously had studios at Kobo, but had subsequently moved on to work privately from their homes.
“I’m the pioneer artist who was first to set up my studio at the Trust,” recalls Elungat who first moved into Kobo in 2011 and stayed there until 2018 when he shifted to Kitengela where quite a few local artists are based, artists like Justus Kyalo, Chelenge van Rampelberg, James Muriuki, and Nani Croze among others.
Kaloki is another artist who once resided at Kobo, but has since moved on. His schedule is so seriously booked with exhibitions overseas, it’s a marvel to see him and his massive canvas paintings at the salon.
Cyrus Kabiru’s ‘black mamba’ bicycle sculpture belongs to Gabby who was happy to remind the public that Cyrus isn’t only known for his c-stunner specks. His ingenious bicycle make-overs are equally imaginative and reflective of his desire to ‘give junk a second life’.
It’s Nedia Were who has no prior relations with Kobo, but artists like Onyis appreciate works by this award-winning artist. Best known for his colorful collage art and creative commentaries on the media, Nedia’s most recent portraits of indigo-blue black women have added interest to his versatile approach to portraiture.
Meanwhile, Njihia brought back his hyper-realistic portraits of children to the salon while Onesmus reintroduced his peace-loving ladies, and Onyis brought out his elegant hand-painted doors. They were all part of Kobo’s recent pop-up show.