The man who loved all women

charlesRacism is surely the most ridiculous of human vices. Driven by fear and a visceral insecurity, it is indefensible and yet persists, often in its equally pernicious form of tribalism — the same sin writ smaller.

We should then welcome an artist who has devoted most of his life to fighting racism: Charles Sekano.

Brought up in South Africa and hating apartheid, he fled to Kenya where he spent 30 years, from 1967-97, as a self taught painter and jazz pianist — two art forms in which racism rarely rears its head.

I never heard him play although I expect his performances in the relaxed and multiracial clubs and bars of Nairobi were as colourful as his paintings are jazzy.

You can see a selection of them dating from 1982 to 1995 at the Red Hill Gallery off Limuru Road, on the outskirts of Nairobi. They cover some of the period he spent in Kenya, before returning to South Africa where he now lives, in Pretoria.

The 28 paintings in this show have been brought together, from three private collections, by gallery owners Hellmuth Rossler and Erica Munsch, and some are for sale, at prices ranging from Ksh180,000 ($2,100) to Ksh320,000 ($3,750).

A blaze of colour on a dull day, they show this gallery, which is in effect the private hobby of an art loving couple, is developing a strong voice of its own.


If you want the best of contemporary Kenyan art, you should probably head for the One-Off; the self-taught painters of village life tend to find the Banana Hill Art Centre a magnet, and if you seek a truly eclectic choice where whatever lies around the next corner comes as a surprise, then the National Museums of Kenya is there for you.

The Red Hill is beginning to exhibit a taste for established international artists who were once all the rage but became the preserve of a devoted cadre of collectors who continue to champion their cause.

Rossler and Musch are giving them a welcome dusting down and a new airing, exposing them often to a new generation of collectors and art lovers.

Sekano is the latest in a line that includes the Sudanese painter Abushariaa Ahmed and the Ugandan Geoffrey Mukasa, an artist who shares so much in his outlook and style with Sekano.

Both celebrate that post-Cubist world dominated by Picasso… arabesques, strong outlines, exaggerated body parts and vibrant colour.

While both artists borrow heavily from the European tradition, they rarely strike out boldly on their own. They interpret and embellish rather than invent, yet their work has had considerable influence on the younger, current generation of East African painters.

Of the two, Mukasa offers a wider choice of subjects — people he knew, myths and the view from his studio outside Kampala. Sekano paints women.

Obsessively and magnificently. Surprisingly, in the Red Hill show there is one, just one, picture not of women. It is of seagulls on the shore, and with those assured black outlines and confident colours it glows like stained glass. I would like to think they are all female seagulls.


Then there are the women, many women, he met as he played jazz piano in Nairobi.

As the UK dealer Ed Cross puts it, “Women became his world”…. and, as the artist himself commented, “Woman is the only country I have.”

Sekano said: “Even the theme ‘Woman’ seems to be remembering my mother, my sisters…. They are inseparable from me. There is no border. This woman theme is my landscape. The only piece of property I own.”

He paints them in many colours. In fact, as Sekano points out, “I decided to destroy the apartheid in my thoughts by using colour, to break the colour bar. So I just fused everything. I made a red woman, I made a blue woman, a green woman.” And here, at the Red Hill Gallery, you can see the result.

Particularly striking is a painting of a woman with a bright blue face gazing out from beneath the vivid yellow brim of her hat. She wears large, hoop earrings. It is a painting that could stop you at 50 paces. If that were all Sekano had ever painted, he would still be high on my list of artists to admire.

Another irresistible work was of two women’s heads, side by side; both wearing huge hoop earrings. Someone he loved must have worn them once. One of the women is black, her hair drawn in dark red crayon.

The face of the other is painted half black, half white so she looks a little like a Maasai in seclusion. This segmenting of the face to show a person of all colours and all tribes predates the similar totems of Cartoon Joseph and, latterly, James Mbuthia.

Yes, Picasso was one obvious influence. And so with their flat planes and graphic simplicity were the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, another lover of the demi-monde.

Sekano’s paintings drag you into that smoky, heavy scented world of multiracial jazz clubs and seedy bars and send a message back to his homeland, and also to us — Wish you were here.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email:

-The EastAfrican



%d bloggers like this: