Spotlight: Kenyan Artist Elias Mung’ora’s Poignant New Works Celebrate the Beauty of Nairobi’s Dwindling Public Spaces

Katie White, Artnet

The artist’s first solo show, “Gathering of Small Fires,” opens at New York’s Montague Contemporary this week.


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About the Artist: Kenyan artist Elias Mung’ora’s first solo show in New York opens at Montague Contemporary this week. The emerging artist takes inspiration from Nairobi’s urban spaces in works that combine painting, photography, and print techniques; in these works, we are witness to tranquil street scenes, vignettes of passersby going about the business of daily life, and friends chatting at a colorful set of table and chairs. Currently, Elias Mung’ora is a member of Brush Tu, a Nairobi-based artists’ collective.


Why We Like It: Mung’ora’s works balance figurative depictions with texture and colorful blocks of patterns. His background imagery of peeling wallpaper and walls with worn layers of paint can at times appear like abstract paintings in their own right. After the global experience of the pandemic over the past year, the works certainly rattle memories of collective urban spaces as places of gathering and communication, rather than as spaces for concern and alarm.


Within the political context of Nairobi, however, these works speak specifically to the ongoing social fracturing occurring under a ruling elite that has privatized these important social spaces and truly forced people into their homes. Mung’ora’s works are a reminder of the power of collective action in the face of oppression, and of the quiet beauty of community. 


According to the Artist: “With my latest body of work, I have been trying to process and think through what it’s been like living in Nairobi in the last year. From fears of catching the virus to conspiracy theories, the rising cost of living, a curfew with no end in sight… We have all been actively trying to make sense of the situation we find ourselves in. In the work, I tried to capture everyday people in thought, in discussion, or just observing and witnessing an event outside of the frame. Through the work, I’m hoping viewers can get something to build onto their own experiences.”


“Gathering of Small Fires” is on view at Montague Contemporary from August 5–September 11, 2021.