By Ogova Ondego
Published September 29, 2013
“Till now, Kenya has been a place to just dream about but not visit due to its location. The magnificent sceneries, the great variety of wildlife, world record-setting runners and the fact that the father of Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States of America, came from Kenya, has made the country very famous in South Korea where it is romanticised on television.”
Those are the words of Eunju Nam, the first North-East Asian artist to exhibit her work at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. The exhibition opened at the Ecology Gallery of the Nairobi National Museum on September 28, 2013 and runs through October 24, 2013.
“But with the introduction of nonstop direct flights three times a week between Nairobi and Seoul on June 21, 2012 by Korean Air Lines, Kenya will cease to be just a place of fantasy to South Koreans,” Nam told ArtMatters.Info in an exclusive interview after her art show—‘Eunju Nam’s Love & Harmony of Kenya’—had been opened by Chan-Woo KIM, the ambassador of South Korea to Kenya, on Saturday afternoon.
Indeed, passengers from Japan and China are using Korean Air that has reduced flight time between North-East Asia and East Africa by between eight and 15 hours; it takes just 13 hours instead of 30 hours that one had to spend while connecting through China, Hong Kong or Thailand to get to Kenya.
But are South Koreans coming to Kenya in droves?
Nam, who first visited Kenya in 2001, says they are though she has no statistics to prove it.
Her Ambassador observed that Nam’s art exhibition was opening a door for cultural exchange between Kenyans and South Koreans.
“As we approach the jubilee year of bilateral relations between the Republic of Korea and the Republic of Kenya in 2014, the exchange between the two countries is flourishing in every aspect,” Kim said.
Nam’s first visit to Kenya in 2001 was to see her brother-in-law who was then serving in Nairobi as the Ambassador of South Korea.
“I stayed three months during which time I painted about Kenya,’ Nam says.
Eunju Nam later held an exhibition—’To Kenya: An Exhibition’—at Gong Gallery in the South Korean capital, Seoul, in 2008 of the ‘impressionable paintings’ she had created on Kenya during the 2001 visit.
“Before my visit to Kenya almost 13 years ago my paintings were in pastel tones, but the strong character and impression of Kenyans has forced me to paint in strong bold colours to capture the authenticity of my subject,” she says of the evolution her art career is taking.
Like her first visit, this one could also be described as coincidental for the woman who started painting as a child and whose talent at 15 enabled her to secure a full scholarship to enable her complete her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree studies in fine art.
“I came here in August 2012 to visit my niece who works with the United Nations in Nairobi,” she says.
But, once again, the former lecturer of oil painting and creative art decided to stay a while longer and paint.
She says she has captured her experience in Turkana, Samburu, Subukia, Malindi, Lamu, Mombasa, and Rift Valley the way a photographer does with the camera.
“I am inspired by landscapes and people in their daily lives: children playing, women shopping or selling their wares. I find Kenyans to be lovely, positive and enthusiastic about life,” she says through her English-speaking niece, Jiyoung Kwon.
After eight years as a lecturer at Dong-Ah University in South Korea, Eunju Nam stopped to pursue painting full time.
Asked if that wasn’t a mistake, Nam says it wasn’t.
But can painting support her better than a don’s life that also ensures she has a salary at the end of every month?
“Yes,” she says.”My Bible-themed paintings not only inspire people but they also buy them. They also commission me to paint for them.”
A member of Korean Christian Art Association and Korean Art Association, Eunju Nam says the inspiration for her work comes from the beauty she sees in people.
“I find meaning for my life within Christianity. I want to share it with others through my work,” Nam says.
As the first Korean to have exhibited in a major Kenyan art gallery as a solo artist, the petite Eunju Nam says she shall continue painting after her exhibition as her work enables her to meet people, and be touched and inspired by them.
At the end of the interview, as I request to take some pictures of the artist with her work, I want to know, rhetorically, why no woman at the gallery is in the lovely South Korean national dress, the hanbok.
I learn that among other cultural activities, the Embassy of South Korea is planning to host exhibitions on gastronomy and fashion in Nairobi in the-not-so-distant future.
The interview over and the pictures taken, it is time for farewell. So I thank Eunju Nam and Jiyoung Kwon, shake their hands the Kenyan. They both bow after which Nam escorts me to the entrance of the Ecology Gallery of the Nairobi National Museum where, once again, she bows in that world-famous Oriental way of greeting and farewell associated with Koreans and Japanese.