ELISHA ONGERE'S Biographical Information
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Like many of the artists on True African Art.com, we have kept in touch with Elisha Ongere as part of our ongoing commitment to promote and give exposure to African artists. Our discussions with him elaborated to the point where we could expand much more on his information page biography. The following are excepts from these conversations:
True African Art: In your African paintings, Elisha, there are facial expressions and wandering eyes. The features are very interesting and captivating. Is there a particular reason why you paint the women's faces the way you do?
Elisha Ongere: My themes mainly are African faces...women...maybe a few are men. But the majority are women because beauty is expressed here in Africa through the woman. We don't express beauty using a man. We express beauty by portraying a woman. A woman's beauty often involves their expressions, especially in the eyes. So that's why the majority of my paintings are featuring women exactly as they are.
True African Art: Can you describe to us more of your style?
Elisha Ongere: In my African paintings, I'm just trying to bring in our continent's natural state of being: unrefined, unpolished. You know, African art and African artists are not frequently refined artists, like it is in European art. That theme of bringing African fine art is not actually our approach all the time. The usual African approach is simply, you put down what you think, what you visualize, and there is no demand for that refinement behind it. It is simply recording the idea...maybe what you have seen, what you would like to feature. And you limit it at that, you don't dive for that fineness. It is just simply doing the African painting, recording it, and then you move ahead and you do another.
Refinement was actually my first approach for my contemporary African art paintings. But when I saw other African artists' approach I learned what they were doing and I liked it. There was a lot of freedom in it. It just doesn't demand so much from one. No, I asked myself instead, can I do it the way I feel? The African paintings approach is so simplistic, so simple. We don't talk about scale. Anything can be anywhere so long as it is helping you express yourself. Any color can be used anywhere also so long as it is allowing you to express what you feel you are doing. And I felt that was a good freedom in these original African art paintings and I have been able to actually put this freedom in my African artwork. I put my colors here, I put my shades here....again there is no scaling. I do the shapes the way I like, featuring my favorites of hands and faces in a flat form.
My colors, I want them very much to be African colors. We have a bright environment here, you cannot say that things are dark here. My paintings tend to be with browns and greens and yellows. I like using oil colors and acrylics because of their permanence...and then also their colors, they come out so well. I have done most of my work using oil paints.
True African Art: Tell us more about your African artwork in galleries and museums.
Elisha Ongere: I was introduced to Gallery Watatu in Nairobi, Kenya back when I was in College. At the time, I was used to just graphic and realistic, modern African art. That is what I used to do. But when I went to Gallery Watatu through the late Ruth Schaffner, I got surprised because what I was seeing here were odd things. They were abstract. I really liked them, but when I saw their value I asked myself 'why is that value attached to this abstract?' It was not the art I was used to. That curiosity made me go back. I wanted to know why this type of art is expensive. Because what I was doing by then was refined art, realism. I produced portraits, etc. You know that was the only thing to me that was contemporary African paintings art. Here at Gallery Watatu I had never seen anything that was like that nor the African artists artwork that I was shown. So I took a week, I studied there, I talked to Ruth...I went back to my house and started examining my materials and produced my first abstract works. Now when I went back to Gallery Watatu, those works sold immediately. In those days Ruth was still there. I remember when I went back again, while I was displaying my works of art to her, someone just came and said, 'We want those works. Give us those works immediately!' And they were both taken the same day! That inspired me. By then Ruth was doing good work at Gallery Watatu. Every artist was happy. She kept getting us good money as artists. And that is something that can inspire you, if your work pays you. That was one good thing about meeting Ruth.
On the side I was also getting work in museums. In the National Museum, the behavior was the same as it had been at the Gallery Watatu. People would walk in and pick my new African paintings saying 'I am buying this one and this one and this one.' That happened to me three times while I was there. Ones I would bring later, it wouldn't be even a week before they were already bought. Then, later on, the museum was closed for renovations and I think for the past four years now we haven't had anything come out of the museums. The way they have been doing their work...they have been so slow and the new management seems to have no interest in the modern African art paintings area. Those artists who were depending on them, the museum just stopped. They didn't know the effect of that, but we were affected. That is how life is now, we are not getting much out of it, but then we are still keeping our interest and hope that things come around for the better. There's just no other way it can go.