‘Vis­ual Voices’ chron­i­cles re­al­ity of Kenyan art

Business Daily (Kenya) - - THE WEEKENDER - MAR­GARETTA WA GACHERU mar­garetta.gacheru@gmail.com

Vis­ual Voices: the Work of over 50 Con­tem­po­rary Artists in Kenya’ is a tome that may soon be seen as canon­i­cal, a ‘must-have’ for ev­ery univer­sity and pub­lic li­brary hav­ing even a slight in­ter­est in Africa, leave alone con­tem­po­rary Kenyan art.

Su­san Wakhungu-githuku’s vo­lu­mi­nous 650-page text with its 400 colour im­ages, in­clud­ing An­thony Okello’s stun­ning ‘Mas­quer­ade’ mask on the cover, doc­u­ments Kenya’s con­tem­po­rary art scene ad­mirably.

No less than 57 of Kenya’s lead­ing artists are chron­i­cled both pho­to­graph­i­cally and bi­o­graph­i­cally in the book. With pho­tog­ra­phy by pro­fes­sion­als like Bobby Pall, James Muriuki and Bedad Mwangi, this Foot­prints Press (FP) pub­li­ca­tion is one of the most daz­zling that Ms Githuku’s pro­duced since she launched FP in 2010.

It’s also a book that’s bound to dec­i­mate the myth that there’s ‘noth­ing’ hap­pen­ing ar­tis­ti­cally in Kenya and that the only con­tem­po­rary African art is com­ing out of West or South Africa.

Pro­vid­ing tan­gi­ble ev­i­dence that Kenya’s art world is vi­brant, in­no­va­tive and di­verse, the only prob­lem the book has is that it could not cap­ture all the artistry cur­rently over­flow­ing in the coun­try to­day.

But leav­ing aside the is­sue of what Vis­ual Voices does not in­clude, one point to the pub­lisher’s credit is that it con­firms not only the re­al­ity of con­tem­po­rary Kenyan art but also its longevity. This it does by in­clud­ing artists who were prac­tis­ing as far back as the 1950s and 1960s in the book.

That means that Elimo Njau, Yony Waite, An­cent Soi, Jak Katarikawe and the late Samwel Wan­jau are all fea­tured in the book.

And like all the oth­ers, their pages con­tain a full-page por­trait photo fol­lowed by an­other full-page of bi­o­graph­i­cal text and no less than six sep­a­rate pages of ei­ther paint­ings, draw­ings, sculp­tures or pho­to­graphs re­flect­ing the artist’s best work.

Equally, what fur­ther re­veals the rich di­ver­sity of the cur­rent art scene is the va­ri­ety of me­dia that artists em­ploy.

They work with ev­ery­thing from char­coal, pen­cil, acrylic and oil paints ap­plied on any­thing from well-primed can­vas, linen, pa­per or ply­wood to Lubugo bark cloth, gal­vanised metal sheets or even glass. The sculp­tures also are cre­ated in multi-me­dia as artists work with ev­ery­thing from wood, scrap metal and stoneware to bronze, steel, resin and fi­bre glass.

Fi­nally, the is­sue of gen­der bal­ance is one that the pub­lisher has clearly sought to ad­dress. She could not quite make the bal­ance since there are only 15 women artists out of the 57 rep­re­sented in Vis­ual Voices.

Nonethe­less, th­ese 15 are all com­mit­ted ‘cre­atives’ who have con­sis­tently proved they can hold their own well in what is still a pre­dom­i­nantly male­dom­i­nated vis­ual art world.

In this re­gard, I must com­mend Ms Githuku for dar­ing to pub­lish such a timely and com­pre­hen­sive book. It’s a trea­sure trove that is bound to trans­form lives of un­told African artists who’ll be in­spired by what they see and ‘hear’ from th­ese ar­tic­u­late vis­ual voices.


ART ‘Vis­ual Voices’ by Su­san Wakhun­gugithuku.

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