By Margaretta wa Gacheru | AfricanColours.com
She is not only a prolific painter and an abstract expressionist whose most recent work, a triptych filled with a menagerie of multi-colored trees; she was also a star attraction at the group exhibition held at the Nairobi National Museum under the title 'Tree Life'.
The co-founder of RaMoMA Museum of Modern Art in Nairobi, Mary Collis is also a passionate patron of contemporary art in Africa.
"I have been collecting Kenyan art for years, but only recently did I realise my collection included many of the country's finest painters and sculptors," said Collis who has been a supporter of up-and-coming artists for as long as she began painter herself.
Kenyan artist Mary Collis at her studio
Trained in graphic design, not painting, Collis shamelessly describes herself as 'self-taught'. Yet she's been passionate about fine art from her youth. Her careers as painter and art patron began almost in tandem.
"I admit I have found young Kenyan artists an immense source of inspiration to me," she told AfricanColours. Yet it's abstract expressionists like the American Mark Rothko and Britons like Patrick Heron and Gillian Ayres who clearly have had the most profound influence on her captivating and colorful style of artistry.
Collis doesn't consider herself a major patron of the arts in the same way as, for instance, a Jean Pigozzi or Andre Magnin are. But she appreciates the role of Kenyan art patron is particularly important right now since this is a time when the valuation of Kenyan art has come to the fore.
In part, this is due to the relatively high prices now being placed on Kenyan paintings by both local and global art dealers. Questions are increasingly being raised about pricing, marketing and the criteria being used to appraise Kenyan art.
Mary Collis, “Blue Gums” 2011, Oil on canvas 89 x 120 cm
The question of investing in Kenyan contemporary art has also become a lively debate largely brought on by Gallery Watatu's new Managing Director, Osei Kofi, who's keen to see Kenyan and African contemporary art gain wider recognition and appreciation within global art networks.
So when one finds one world-travelled art lover who is specifically intent on collecting Kenyan contemporary art, as Mary Collis has done, one cannot help but be curious not just about her eclectic taste for Kenyan painting and sculpture, but also about her faith in the long-term investment value of the art itself.
"It wasn't so much the investment value that drew me into collecting Kenyan art," says Collis, who had dreamed for many years of setting up a Museum of Modern Art in Kenya.
"I had a vision of establishing a Kenyan MOMA, which is why I traveled all across America with my dear friend (the late) Dora Block. We went to see every single modern art gallery and museum we could find to get a clear idea of what we could do in Kenya," Collis said.
Her vision came to fruition in 2000 when she persuaded the curator of OneOff Gallery, Carol Lees, to team up with her to launch the Rahimtullah Museum of Modern Art or RaMoMA.
Collis and Lees opened RaMoMA's downtown Nairobi doors wide to a wide range of promising young talents, some of whom were relatively well known locally, such as Wanyu Brush, Sane Wadu, Tabitha wa Thuku, Morris Foit, Anselm Croze, and Shine Tani, all of whose art can be found in Collis' personal collection.
Mary Collis, "Dappled Shades on Cedar", Oil on Canvas, 2011, 89 X 100cms
Others were little known until they got recognised at RaMoMA, including Richard Kimathi, Harrison Mburu, Allan Githuka, and Wanjohi Nyamu, all of whom have gone from strength to strength since their first exhibitions at RaMoMA. Collis owns examples of their works as well as many others.
Fortunately, while she was busy collecting Kenyan art and actualising the dream she had nurtured for years, a dream which included helping local artists obtain international art residencies and exchanges, Collis also took time out for her own art.
Specialising in abstract expressionist works filled with colors that veritably exploded on her massive canvases, Collis had a number of successful exhibitions at RaMoMA throughout the decade. Her own list of patrons is substantial, including both international and Kenyan collectors like the Head of the Serena Group of Hotels, Jan & Azmina Janmohamed and Alex & Christine Davis of Davis & Shirtliff Ltd. among others.
The continuity of Collis' creative expression may help explain why so much of the eye-catching art that one sees upon entry into the Collis home is the artist's own! Works like her "Feminine Energy" triptych, fills one whole wall of her light-filled dining room, and was actually painted this year.
Background painting, "Feminine Energy" (triptych), Mind Body and Soul, Oil on canvas, 115 x 378 cms
But then, an oil painting like 'How Long Will I See Girlhood in My Daughter', hanging strategically near the family fire place, was painted several years back, when her mood was a blue as the hues featured on her large canvas.
Collis' hallmark is clearly her radiant and rich use of color as well as the magical way in which she blends her oil paints, either using brushes or oil color sticks. That hallmark is one reason why she gets commissions like 'A Powerful Pink Passionate Painting', for which her patron asked explicitly for a painting drenched in passionate pinks! Such a painting is also indicative of the artist's inclination to 'speak' aesthetically in luscious, often loud and loquacious colours rather than fine figurative lines and imagery.
Ever since RaMoMA closed in late 2010, Collis has plunged into her painting practically full-time.
"It wasn't easy, losing RaMoMA," says Collis who clearly struggles with feelings of loss for the dream that virtually evaporated before her very eyes.
"We worked hard to save it, and we came so close to succeeding, but there were many factors working against us, and ultimately, we didn't have the means to revive RaMoMA in the end."
Fortunately, the RaMoMA Trust still exists as does the RaMoMA Collection which includes more than 90 works of art purchased or donated to RaMoMA throughout the 2000s.
"We still have hope that the RaMoMA Collection will find a home in Nairobi, and in the meantime, the reality that the RaMoMA Trust still exists means the dream still lives on," Collis said.
Bold and vibrant colours are a trademark of any Mary Collis painting.
At home in her studio, Collis is currently involved with several painterly 'works in progress', particularly ones that reflect her first love -- for those Kenyan floral gardens whose mind-boggling colors veritably explode on her canvases.
Currently, attentive to the garden of the late Kenyan fashion designer, Erika Boswell, Collis makes the most of the crayon-like oil color sticks that she uses together with her brushes and broad palette of oil paints.
But it's her more graphic landscape of Limuru 'Tea pickers' that has several Kenyan collectors panting for that particular painting as it's so reminiscent of the way many Kenyans grew up who lived on and around the ultra-green tea plantation.
Mary Collis, "Tea Pickers", 2011, Oil on canvas, 39 x 42 inches
One of the most surprising features of Collis's art is the way she may be renowned as a colorist, but in fact, she's a woman who fearlessly experiments with various media, including glass -something she started while attending Kitengela Glass workshops, and new techniques, including digital printing and even textile and fashion design of everything from designer shoes and scarves to handbags and safari chairs!
Her most recent experiment-using digital printing to transpose her art onto heavy canvas-is something that has taken off since RaMoMA's demise.
Translating her most luminous and colorful expressionist paintings into functional, craft-like forms is her latest project conceived jointly with her long-time friend and partner, Diana Bird, the former MD of one of Kenya's largest department stores.
Branding their company 'Art Limited', their first showing, called 'The Collis Collection' just recently premiered in the UK where Kenyan models walked the catwalk during London's August Fashion Week wearing the artist's designer apparel bearing reproductions of 'Weeping over the Tigris', others patterned after her painting 'Yellow Sands'.
Mary Collis' personal art collection reflects the artist's passion for African contemporary art, and especially works by the young artists who exhibited at RaMoMA in its heyday, from 2000-2010, but her real claim to fame is as an awesome painter and imaginative innovator whose faith in the contemporary art scene continues to grow as she sees herself as one of many locals who is going transnational even as she remains true to her own Kenyan art world.
Click here to view Mary Collis' portfolio.
Posted By: Allan Kapten
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