Art Gallery Shows to See Right Now - Elias Mung'ora

Siddhartha Mittar, New York Times

NADA x Foreland, where art fair meets group show; and portraits of daily life in Nairobi by the painter Elias Mung’ora.


Through Sept. 11. Montague Contemporary, 526 West 26th Street, Manhattan, (917) 495-3865,


Passing the time is a social form in the paintings of Elias Mung’ora, a Kenyan artist with his eye and emotions tuned to the texture of daily life in Nairobi. Each of his recent paintings functions as a social vignette: A sidewalk seamstress, with no customers in sight, has a friend sitting beside her, keeping her company. Four men converse, perched on furniture of convenience — a wood trestle, mismatched blue plastic chairs. Small crowds wait in line for some purpose outside the frame, or cluster to peer into a doorway. Indoors, two men on a rounded sofa lean close in, their chat more compelling than their cups of tea.


Mung’ora, born in 1992, is largely self-taught, a product of a dynamic scene in Nairobi that is gradually gaining international attention. His first solo show in the United States, “Gathering of Small Fires,” is now on display in the Africa-oriented Montague Contemporary gallery in Chelsea. He grew up in a provincial town, and upon moving to Nairobi, first studied real estate. His paintings brim with curiosity about the metropolis as a large, ever-shifting organism, and the ways in which ordinary people navigate its obstacles and make their lives amid its inequalities.


At times in past work, Mung’ora has gone for maximal urban scenes that are chaotic and sometimes bleak. These new paintings, made during the pandemic, gain from their embrace of the lulls in big-city life, and the emergence of his figures as realized character studies. Working in brilliant acrylics, with a fine command of bold, contrasting colors, he now also incorporates photo transfers from archival images in Kenyan history. Highly layered, often finely balancing careful detail and with blur in both the figures and their settings, Mung’ora’s canvases become distillates of the city itself, as much as generous portraits of its people.


Siddhartha Mittar