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NCAI Fetes Pre-eminent Kenyan Carver

Dubbed ‘Kenya’s first female sculptor’, Chelenge Van Rampelberg is the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute featuring early paintings and woodcut prints hung alongside the abstract figures carved in wood for which she is renowned both at home and abroad. TPAAE researcher Marlena Chybowska-Butler from the National Museum in Poland attended the opening of the show in early November as part of her autumn secondment, along with volunteer researcher Rick Butler, and they filed this report.

Entitled ‘The Long Way Home’, the exhibition showcases Chelenge’s methods, presenting the treatises on family, femininity, power, and humanity’s connection to the natural world that she has explored over four decades in her variety of chosen media. The exhibition at the Institute’s shopping-mall space in a northern suburb of the Kenyan capital traces the artist’s development and evolution, displaying the ways in which she incorporates the techniques she observed as a child, growing up in the Rift Valley town of Kichiro, into an oeuvre that began taking shape in the 1980s when her own children went off to school.

Encouraged by her husband, designer Eric Van Rampelberg, to pursue the painting that she at first hid from him, Chelenge progressed to printmaking and etching when she took a course offered by the Alliance Francaise cultural outreach and language school, which is a centre for artistic activities and events in downtown Nairobi. Those works can be seen in the exhibition, which features paintings of formal family scenes, and etchings and woodcuts of rural Kenya’s fauna and flora.

Among the most striking works on display are sculptures carved from a variety of wood, including avocado, jacaranda, and mahogany, some dating from her early days of working in the medium. These include abstract portrayals of Eve and Adam, a treatise on childbirth, and modernist figure studies that harken to tribal totems of fertility and femininity. Gathered in part from NCAI’s collection, the works provide viewers with a rich and well-rounded examination of the artist’s work in career that continues to the present day.

NCAI founder Michael Armitage, who spent time as a child in Chelenge’s home studio, opened the show and later discussed plans with TPAAE researchers for the institute’s development. These include the art-making workshops and the creation of post-graduate certificate programs and residencies. Fellow artist Peter Elungat, whose studio isn’t far from Chelenge’s home in the town of Kitangela, outside Nairobi, entertained listeners with an acapella rendition of ‘Ave Maria’. They included a host of art makers, gallerists, and collectors from Nairobi, many of whom are friends of TPAAE research teams.

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