The perfect center of Nairobi

When I walked in through the doors of the Nairobi Gallery I knew there had to be something interesting about the small round lobby. The dartboard pattern of tiles on the floor pointed to the very center of the circular lobby, directly under the dome. Could it have held a Foucault’s pendulum at one time? I squinted up to the gallery and decided that the height did not look correct. The name of the cafe outside, Zero Point, should have alerted me if I’d paid attention to it.

But it wasn’t until I saw this plaque on the wall did the historical significance hit me. Nairobi was built in 1899 to be a railway depot on the Uganda Railway, which ran from Mombasa on the coast to Kisumu on Lake Victoria. The zero point would have been a survey benchmark in the construction of the railways by the British East India Company. By the time the railway was finished, Nairobi had begun to grow. After a major cholera outbreak in 1901, there was some talk of moving the township, but Railway engineers thought that it would remain an Indian township and could “prosper in spite of unsanitary conditions and chronic plague.” Winston Churchill, traveling to see the railways in 1907 as Under-Secretary for the Colonies, wrote that the place “enjoys no advantages as a residential site.” By then it was too late to shift the town.

By 1913, when the Provincial Commissioner’s office was constructed at this spot, Nairobi had “outgrown its swamp and tin-roof days”, as Beryl Markham writes in her book West by Night. Joseph Murumbi, independent Kenya’s second Vice-President, who eventually moved to this house, was two years old and living in India at that time. He moved back to Kenya and joined the African Union Party, becoming its general secretary in 1952, part of constituent assembly after independence, Foreign Minister, and finally the Vice-President, resigning at the end of 1966 and moving away from politics. The photo above shows a recreation of his study during the time that he lived here.

The core of the collection we saw was a bequest from his wife, Sheila Murumbi, to the Kenyan nation. The couple had been collectors of African art through their lives, and had encouraged the continuation of traditional forms in many ways. The lobby contained the two beautiful traditional carved doors which you see in the photos above. These are portals, so to say, through which you pass into the wonderful collection here. We were the only visitors during the two hours we spent here. Unfortunate, because it is a great collection, and a perfectly wonderful way to spend a morning when you pass through Nairobi.

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Three African artists

When I saw the painting in the featured photo in Nairobi Gallery, I thought to myself “So like a Chagall.” Apparently Jak Katarikawe (born 1940 in Kigezi, Uganda, died October 19 2018) was sometimes called Africa’s Chagall for his whimsical paintings of elephants and cattle. In interviews he said that his sense of colour came from stained glass windows in the churches of Uganda. He was mentored by Sam Ntiru of the Makarere University’s art department, when he was a driver in the university. He moved to Kenya in the 1970s, and became professionally successful. This painting is probably from the 1970s.

Bruce Onobrakpeya (born 30 August 1932) experimented with techniques to make low-relief works through printing. The example in Nairobi Galery seems to be from his early experimental period when he started depositing bronze patinas on lino cuts. It would be interesting to see how he extended these methods over a large part of his lifetime, first using resin and plaster of Paris (which he called Plastographs), then metal foil, and finally artificial polymers which look like ivory.

Salih Abdou Mashamoun was born (in 1946?) in the village of Debeira in Wadi Halfa, Northern Sudan, which was inundated by the building of the Aswan High Dam. He was a poet and artist, and a Sudanese diplomat until the country became an Islamic state. In an interview, Mashamoun says that he was mentored by Seif Wanley in Alexandria, where he entered the university in 1964. He was the featured artist in the African Heritage exhibition in Nairobi in 1976 when it burnt down, so that much of his early work is now lost. This work, a gouache on stretched goatskin, is one of the two which were saved. It is from the period just before the fire.

These three artists whose works I saw in Nariobi Gallery stand at the beginning of the contemporary art of post-colonial Africa. It will be interesting to go back to Nairobi and explore the directions that their successors are taking.

Paintings from Nairobi

There’s wonderful contemporary art in Kenya, and, like much of the world’s contemporary art, it is driven by the human condition. But apart from this, there is also a stream of contemporary art which takes its inspiration from Kenya’s abundant wildlife. When I walked into Nairobi Gallery, a temporary exhibition was based on this theme. Some of the works can be seen in the gallery of photos below.

Some street art from Nairobi

Somewhere in the Parklands district of Nairobi, I came across a wall with beautiful street art. Markets in Kenya are full of beautifully executed art, sold at heart-breakingly low prices. I’d been surprised at the relative lack of street art, so this discovery was very pleasant. The Swahili word Jamuri means room, and that puts the piece in the featured photo in context. Imaginative, along with the graffiti inside graffiti.

This beautifully flowing piece on the same wall has the inscription Haki iwe ngao, which is Swahili for “Righteousness be the shield”. I like this East African “idiom” which avoids large areas of single colour, but uses stippling and stripes very extensively. On this large scale it makes for an extremely bright effect, somewhat in the way the pointillist experiments of Seurat did.

This superbly painted clubhouse gate more or less explained why this wall was full of street art. The logo of the clubhouse is rather cool I think. That background pink is really lovely.

This last one requires little explanation if you know a bit of Kenyan history. 1963 was the year Kenya became independent.

Masai Market

Late in the afternoon Mother of Niece Tatu asked The Family whether we needed to take anything with us on the trip we planned the next day. We’d had very little sleep the previous night, and I was forcing myself to stay awake until the night to adjust to the local time. Walking about would be the perfect way to keep awake, so I hoped that the question would result in a long expedition to which I could tag along.

A large part of the expedition was a visit to a Masai market. We were to find later that it is a Nairobi staple. There are several of these markets; a large one travels to a different mall every day. We spent part of the evening in the Diamond Plaza shopping complex where a smaller one sits a few days a week. The sight of a large variety of semi-precious stones ensured that I wouldn’t feel drowsy for a while. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realized that the interesting and violent geology of the rift valley would be the source of a large variety of such stones.

I thought I would look for a kikoi or shuka. The kikoi is an extremely versatile tectangle of hand woven cloth which can be used as a lungi or a shawl, or folded over into a backpack or a turban. If you have seen photos of Masai wearing a red blanket, then you’ve seen a shuka. The Family instantly realized what a wonderful thing a kikoi could be, and supplanted me as the main customer.

I wandered off to look at the other handicrafts. These are all produced in little workshops at home, something that we would call a cottage industry in India. This very Gandhian model of economy now produces a huge variety of objects for the large tourist trade that Kenya has. I loved the polished wooden kitchenware with the beautiful zebra themed highlights. The prices that they go for are so small that you wonder about the cost of living in Kenya.

I’m sold on giraffes. When I looked at the painted wooden giraffes on display here I knew they could not be Rothschild’s giraffes, since they did not have the white socks characteristic of the species. Were they Masai giraffes then? I looked at the long ears and resolved to keep this feature in mind when I got to see them in the wild. Of course all these are stylized representations of the animals, so it was possible that certain features are exaggerated or removed.

The stalls were just a piece of cloth laid on the ground with the wares displayed on top of them, just as in street markets across Asia. The tourist trade is often drawn off into shops inside malls where exactly the same things are sold at a premium. We saw more tourists in those places than in these Masai markets. Economic theory fails to explain this. The result is that the primary producer, the people who make and sell these things at Masai markets, earns much less than the middleman who sells them in bigger shops at malls.

I wandered over to a vendor who was selling etched glass. The baobab and acacia trees, the lions, zebras, and buffaloes, were beautifully rendered. I asked the lady selling it whether she did it herself. “No,” she said, “this is done by a mzee.” MONT explained that mzee literally means an old man, but can be used as a respectful term for anyone. I promised the lady that I would be back later to buy something from her. This first expedition was just scouting the market. The Family had also decided to postpone the buying of kikoi. We moved on.

Matbronze gallery and cafe

I’d heard about Nairobi’s cafes from Niece Tatu, “Fabulous.” Reviews I’d seen on the web gave me a similar impression. The Mother of Niece Tatu and the Father of Niece Tatu (I adopt the respectful Swahili way of referring to them) had our day chalked out for us when they picked us up from the airport. After a stop to see giraffes we were whisked off to the nearby Matbronze Gallery.

The bronze pieces are cast in a foundry in the grounds of the gallery by local artists. I’d read that the gallery and foundry were started in 1987 by artist Denis Mathews, but the work has been carried on by younger Kenyan artists after his death in 1997. The huge bronze head of an elephant, balanced on its trunk, which you see at the edge of the parking area is probably one of the pieces by Mathews. The only human bronze I saw was the bust of the conservationist Mervyn Cowie holding a pair of binoculars under a stylized bronze acacia. We walked through the gallery admiring the beautiful pieces. Some of the ones which I liked best were the delicate ones of birds perched on stalks of bronze grass, or pecking at de3lciate bronze flowers. The beautiful texturing of the bronze and the subtle colours imparted by mild oxidizing were wonderful devices. I wish I’d not put off visiting the foundry, because our tight schedule meant that we never went back. One result is that I’ve fallen, inadvertently, into the colonial trap of mentioning only the founder of the gallery and not the artists who sustain it now.

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It was well past our lunch time in Mumbai, but the odd breakfasts (yes, in plural) that we had eaten had left us feeling full. So we agreed with FONT that coffee and cake would be good. The Family’s cappuccino (featured photo) came with the signature lion’s pawprint of the gallery done in cocoa; you can always recognize the lion by its claw. The chocolate brownie was dense and moist, but the cake was taken, so to say, by the oatmeal cookies. I’m afraid I forgot to take a photo of these until I’d polished off half a plate.

The beautifully preserved skull of an immense tusker had caught my eye as we sipped our coffees. When we got up to leave, I threaded my way through the tables on to the lawn where it was placed. That’s the photo you see above. Kenya was the first country to destroy seized stocks of illegal ivory in 1989. It is not illegal to own ivory which was obtained before the 1973 ban on elephant hunting. So I guess this skull predates the ban. We were to hear more about elephant conservation and the ivory ban in the coming days, but for now, we were in the hands of MONT and FONT, who had planned a wonderful day for us.

Five hours in Fatih

It was hard to say goodbye to Istanbul. We walked until the last possible minute and left the dealing with fatigue for the flight back to Mumbai.

Constantine’s column

Our last day in Istanbul started with a tram ride down the central axis that Constantine built for his new city: the street once called the Mese, now Yeniçeriler Cadessi.

We hopped off at the stop called Çemberlitaş. The square here is as old as the city; it was part of the Roman forum. The column is Constantine’s column, today called Çemberlitaş, meaning burnt column, The base has been raised over centuries, the old base lies well below the level of today’s ground. The mosque behind it was built by Atik Ali Pasha. The single minaret designates that the Pasha was not of the royal family. The sultan’s family was allowed to put up two minarets in mosques they financed, the sultan would normally use four. There’s a nice hamam right in front of the column, across the square from the mosque. One reason we need to go back to Istanbul is that we didn’t find the time to go to a hamam.

Nurosmaniye mosque

We were at the northern end of the square. At the other end we could see the Nurosmaniye mosque, one of the exemplary Baroque Ottoman mosques, and our second stop for the day.

I should write more about this grand 18th century structure, which may, quite deservedly, be included in the World Heritage list soon. Started in 1748 CE during the reign of sultan Mahmut I and completed seventeen years later in the time of his successor, sultan Osman III, the architect Simeon Kalfa built a structure bathed in light. I should write more about it, but, for completely different reasons, I must repeat the words of Evariste Galois, “Je n’ai pas le temps.”

Grand bazaar

Just outside the mosque was the covered bazaar which is the big destination for tourists. So many carpet sellers in the rest of Turkey had told us that their prices were much lower than we would find in the Grand bazaar, that we were looking forward to it.

The Turkish name, Kapalıçarşı, literally would mean covered bazaar, but grand is a good description. Its construction started immediately after the Turkish victory over the Byzantines in 1453 AD. This area stands just across a hill from the ancient port on the Golden Horn, and the end of what used to be Theodosius’ forum (now Beyazit square). So there must have been ancient market here even earlier. In the 17th century the Ottoman empire controlled trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe, and this market was deemed to be the biggest in the world. It remains picturesque even today. The Family and I could roam through this market for a full day, looking for carpets, ceramics, calligraphy, meerschaum pipes, and even food. So it was hard to walk through quickly in half an hour.

Streets of Fatih

The Beyazit mosque was under repair. On another side of the vast Beyazit square was Istanbul University (which produced two Nobel laureates and the founder of Israel). We walked up to the enormous ceremonial gate (featured photo), then detoured into the used-book market. The only planned stop in our walk after this was the Sulemaniye mosque. The rest of the time was for immersing ourselves into the life of Istanbul.

We walked past a few meyhane. My subconscious went into overdrive and reminded me that the Turkish hane is the cognate of Urdu khana, so meyhane is the same as the Hindi maikhana, a pub. They were closed now. Could it be because of Ramazan? Nerval had come to Istanbul in Ramazan in the 18th century, and described it as a fast and a carnival. We’d expected nights to be livelier than they were. Much has changed in the intervening years. Nerval’s friend, Theophile Gautier, walked through these streets (“labyrinth”, he called it) a few years later, terrified by snarling packs of dogs. The Turkish writers Yahya Kemal and Tanpinar followed in their footsteps in the 20th century and called then “ruined, poor and wretched.” Now, as we proceed beyond the beginning of the 21st century, the area is quite gentrified.

Egyptian bazaar (spice bazaar)

Our final stop was the spice bazaar, behind the in-repair Rustem Pasha mosque. The area outside the covered bazaar was truly a bazaar in the Indian sense; lots of little shops, a huge press of people rushing about, others, like us, holding up traffic by taking photos. But we would be back in such places the very next day, so we passed by familiar pleasures and walked into the Misir çarşısi, ie, the Egyptian bazaar.

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Located just behind the New mosque (Yeni cami), the spice bazaar had an astounding variety of things to eat. I was really taken by the balls of nuts held together by a gummy matrix like lokum, and bought a single piece by weight. Istanbullus are like people in any other city; shopkeepers are a little surly when you do things that no local does. But tis man sold me a weirdly small amount of food after a little grumbling. There was a lot of lokum on display, but I’d earmarked a special shop for the sweets I wanted to take back. Did I want rose water, or orange essence? No. “Time to move on”, The Family said. Indeed, we were back in Eminönü after a five hour walk. Time to leave Istanbul.

Street art and ambush photography in Karaköy

Parts of Karaköy seem to be in terminal decline. The Family and I walked through back streets of these “old, poor, historic neighbourhoods”, as the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk calls them in his memoirs entitled “Istanbul”. The large number of tourists gave me an opportunity for ambush photography: the photographing of people who are being photographed by others. Where tourists thinned out, the walls became dense with graffiti. Plaster was falling off the walls of some of these buildings, revealing weathered brick. This is the area downhill from the Galata tower.

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The outline of the 14th century tower, a tall grey cylinder topped by a darker cone, is so clear and visible that I got used to orienting myself by it. I don’t suppose that there is any trace left here of the Genoese colony which built the tower, since the whole area became a fashionable district during the 18th century. Most of the crumbling buildings in these back streets are likely to be from the 19th century. I should really locate a street by street architectural guide to Istanbul when I go back there.

Finding the Jade Buddha temple

I’d put off visiting the Jade Buddha temple in Shanghai for several years. Six months earlier when The Family and I had passed through Shanghai twice, we decided to visit other parts of the town. Now that I had half a day in town before catching a flight back home, I decided I must repair this oversight. How do you get there? The simplest way for me was to catch Metro Line 13 and get off at the Jiangning Road station. There are very useful maps inside metro stations telling you about the neighbourhood (I’ve painted the temple in pink in the map here), and I figured that I needed to take exit 3, walk back a little and then walk back west a bit until you hit the first cross road, and then take it two blocks south. In any case, the temple complex is visible as soon as you walk a few paces, so there is no worry about not finding it.

Temple walls are easily visible in China because they are often painted in the bright ocher colour that you see here. Online guides had been a little confusing about whether you can take photos inside, but I figured that this was China. People take photos constantly. I passed the wonderful red doors that you see in the featured photo, paid up my small entrance fee, and walked in. Families were busy taking photos. I felt quite at home taking a large camera out of my backpack.

The temple was first set up in 1882 CE to house a gift of two Burmese white jade Buddhas from the Jiangwang temple. It was abandoned after the Republican revolution of 1911, and restored by 1928. It took me some time to find the reclining Buddha. It is the smaller statue in one of the last halls in the north. Interestingly, it is not even the most prominent figure in the room. I left off searching for the other figure, which is on an upper level. I’ll definitely pass through Shanghai again, and this is as good a place to come back to as any other.

Istanbul Modern

We walked into the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art to look at some of the contemporary art in Turkey. One of the interesting exhibitions here was called “The event of a thread: Global narratives in textiles”. The use of textiles in art is not something I’ve seen done systematically. Seeing the pieces collected here all at the same time was very interesting. I took photos of some of the pieces I liked.

Ulla von Brandenburg exhibited three quilted fabrics called Flying Geese, Log Cabin, and Drunkard’s Path (featured photo). The artist points out that quilting is not just women’s work; they were also used by various revolutionary movements.

Sakir Gökçebag’s piece called Kosmos was a stunning installation using a partially woven carpet. The artist says that the partial work reminds us about the work that goes into the making of a carpet through the parts which remain to be completed.

This painting on a head scarf by Güneş Terkol was called Against the current. The concept was developed during a workshop in Vienna, where several women discussed the slogans to be displayed, and worked together to sew them into the banners held by the painted figures.

Belkis Balpinar’s work entitled Singularities uses weaving as a medium. She says that two planes with singularities of different forms are joined by the vertical threads which are called warps. The horizontal threads are left unwoven. I liked the medium and the strikingly bold visual pattern that was tied together with the threads.

Another floor held a retrospective of photos by Yildiz Moran, a woman photographer born in 1935. She worked for only twelve years, starting from 1950. In 1962 she gave up photography to look after her children. Her photos seemed to capture Anatolia of her times as sensitively as Ara Güler caught the Istanbul that he knew.