Kenyan sculptor Ong’esa on a mission to elevate African art

Kenya’s most lauded sculptor, Elkana Ong’esa, has seen his gigantic stone creations displayed across the globe, but feels African art still deserves greater recognition at home and abroad.

“African art has influenced Western art heavily,” the 79-year-old sculptor said, pointing to Pablo Picasso’s early 20th-century masterpieces, such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, that drew inspiration from the continent.

Despite this, “African art has been left behind,” he told AFP in an interview at his home in Tabaka in western Kenya’s hilly Kisii county.

His work — much of it inspired by nature — has been showcased at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the United Nations in New York and respected galleries in cosmopolitan capitals.

But it still has not attracted the “very high” prices assigned to artworks produced in the West, he said, with neither African nor foreign collectors willing to shell out for pieces from the continent.

And that’s not the only obstacle.

“The Kenyan government does not give enough support to artists,” he said, recalling a 2014 fiasco that prevented his work from taking centre stage at the Smithsonian Folklore Festival in Washington.

Ong’esa had carved a monumental granite sculpture for the prestigious event, and was offered 1.2 billion Kenyan shillings (then equivalent to $13.8 million) by an interested buyer.

But Kenyan authorities, who insisted on handling transport requirements for the 13-tonne elephant — refusing foreign offers of help — eventually said it was too heavy to be airlifted.

Media reports said officials had demanded kickbacks in exchange for transporting the piece.

Ong’esa would not comment on the specific allegations, saying only that “some people in the Kenyan government, who were supposed to help, turned against the concept.”

If the sale had gone ahead, it would have entered the record books and “Kenyan art would be in a different league”, he added.


– ‘Turning point’ –


Born into a family of craftsmen, he started making clay toys for himself as a toddler before learning to carve little animals out of waste stone shards.

His talent took him to Makerere University in neighbouring Uganda and onward to Canada’s McGill University for graduate studies.

He discovered artists whose work would influence his own, from the stone carvings produced by Inuit sculptors to the use of negative space by British icon Henry Moore.

“Their work was more (about) artistic expression than craft,” he said. “It was a very important turning point for me.”

Even so, there is no mistaking the African imprint on his creations.

Kisii stone, his favoured medium, is found only in western Kenya, unlike soapstone, a widely available rock it is often confused with.

Furthermore, his work often features symbols from African myths and songs.

The giant granite sculpture gracing the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, “Enyamuchera” (“Bird of Peace” in the Kisii language), has its origins in the fiscal shrike, a black and white bird native to Sub-Saharan Africa.

The bird can be a harbinger of good luck or misfortune depending on the angle from which it is seen.

“That sculpture says something about me as a person,” he said. “It shows what is in me as an artist, as a Kisii.”


– ‘Hoping and praying’ –


It also reflects his insistence on creating art that resonates at home, not only in global capitals.

His sculptures are displayed along Kisii’s streets, in his garden where he teaches stone carving to young artists and children, and in the museum he has built to host workshops and showcase African art.

His impact on the community was evident at his birthday party last month, with former students and artists paying tribute to their visibly moved mentor as his family cheered.

After ill health forced him to stop working for seven years, the grandfather of five is slowly picking up his tools again.

“I have a desire to do my art,” he said.

He has already begun carving smaller sculptures because he is no longer able to stand for the long periods of time needed to make larger pieces.

“I am hoping and praying that my body will improve,” he said.

“When you cut a stone and see the inside, it is so beautiful, it is so exciting.”

AM Live

AM Live is NTV's morning current affairs show that sets the agenda for the day with insightful panels every weekday.


Business Redefined

Business Redefined is Kenya’s premier thought leadership platform for unpacking matters regarding economic and finance policy as well demystifying complex developments in the region’s capital markets.


A collection of our premium content. Diam curabitur vehicula A collection of our premium content. Diam curabitur vehicula

Full Episodes

A collection of our premium content. Diam curabitur vehicula A collection of our premium content. Diam curabitur vehicula

Gumzo La Sato

Gumzo La Sato is a live social issues show that aims to create awareness about issues affecting the larger society. The discussions range from Parenting, Marital bliss and struggles, Oppression, violence, and all matters of the Heart.

Health Diary

Health Diary is a weekly show that highlights different types of diseases/conditions and seeks ways to prevent, treat/manage them. The show debunks this through real life stories and also feature specialists in different fields, to offer medical advice on the same.

Letter To My Younger Self

Letter To My Younger Self is a podcast where guests get to write a letter to their younger self, from which Maxine formulates questions to ask them during the hour-long show.

Mazao Talks

Mazao looks at agriculture and agribusiness

Nation Reports

Nation Reports is a weekly podcast offers an opportunity for listeners to interact with various reporters and journey with them as they unravel the biggest most emotive stories.

One Health Lens Podcast

Discussing health matters and human stories from Kenya and across Africa. We talk big picture from people to policy, ecosystems, and everything in between. Follow us on LinkedIn:

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost peeks through the story of Louis Otieno, the times, and everything in between.



Speaking of GEN Z

Speaking of Gen Z brings you entertaining but meaningful conversations about a generation that is trying to navigate through adulthood. Join hosts Michelle, Jackie and Esther as they unravel all things Gen Z.

Sport On

Sport-On is a 30-minute sports magazine show on NTV and 3 hours on NATION FM. The show seeks to give the sports “fanatics” and “funatics” comprehensive and in-depth coverage of sports both locally and internationally.


The extent of technological growth is beyond mere acknowledgment; it has seamlessly integrated into our daily existence. A few years ago, the notion of paying electricity bills through mobile money or recharging with 'tokens' in Kenya seemed inconceivable. Online product sales were considered distant, and artificial intelligence is rapidly reshaping various facets of our lives. Amidst these technological leaps, those with a solid understanding of tech can navigate challenges, seize opportunities, and build a sustainable livelihood. Tech over Show aims to be the platform facilitating discussions among thought leaders, innovators, tech companies, and the government, addressing challenges and opportunities in Kenya's thriving tech industry.


Thamani is a business show which is dedicated to emerging issues regarding micro, small and medium size businesses.

The Politalk podcast

This is The Politalk podcast. Here we look into the ins and outs of everything Kenyan politics. We pull no punches and have no reason to sugarcoat anything that matters to Kenyans.

The Trend

A two-hour-long live show that airs on Fridays. The show focuses on what is current in the entertainment industry, controversial and popular across all media platforms targeting those aged between 25 and 35 years.

The trend podcast

The trend podcast highlights and captures the best of banter from #TTTT segment that airs every Friday on NTV. It's the TTTT EXTRA

The Wicked Edition

The Wicked Edition with Dr. King’ori seeks to address serious issues through humour and relatable wit. It is a two-part half hour show filmed in front of a live audience


A collection of our premium content. Diam curabitur vehicula A collection of our premium content. Diam curabitur vehicula


Twende is a travel show that highlights beautiful, unique, diverse locations, people, and cultures. The show offers fresh perspectives on familiar locations and memorable experiences in new ones.


This Saturday evening lifestyle show lets viewers share their stories and life experiences as openly & honestly for the purpose of shifting the culture of silence.

VIP Access

VIP ACCESS is Anyiko Owoko’s YouTube and podcast show on Music and Culture dedicated to promoting Africa’s most promising talent and creatives. This podcast grants you VIP access into timeless interviews while providing a platform for rising as well as established artists across the continent. Since launching in 2018, Anyiko has interviewed over 70 African music stars.


This weekly news show aims to have all sides of debate but not be constrained by it, listen to main voices in the contest but not allow them to hold the viewers hostage, entertain debate but allow push back with all due respect.

When death do us part

In this podcast, three widowers openly speak about the process of grief, how they found themselves exposed to the emotional turmoil of losing their wives, and how society still does not know how to deal with them.

Your World

Your World is a health, wellness and variety show. It provides a platform for audiences and experts to share their experiences on how to improve or manage health issues, across Kenya and the Africa region.