Frank Whal­ley: Sauce for the goose but not the gan­der

GAL­LERIES: Sex is the theme of two ex­hi­bi­tions just me­tres apart — one an en­joy­able romp with Michael Soi and Thom Ogonga; the other a solemn look at gen­der and the part phys­i­cal ap­pear­ances play in our ex­pe­ri­ences of life

The East African - - THE MAGAZINE - Frank Whal­ley, Spe­cial Correspondent

In my com­pound rape is a daily oc­cur­rence, to say noth­ing of incest and all man­ner of wild cou­plings with mul­ti­ple part­ners. I re­fer of course to life in the goose pen, which nowa­days ri­vals Hol­ly­wood or even, it ap­pears, the Bri­tish Houses of Par­lia­ment.

So, with sex the or­der of the day, a visit to two cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tions in Nairobi seemed to, er, float the boat.

The first is Re­mote — the Yearn­ing of the Dis­pos­sessed, at the Goethe In­sti­tut, where the walls re­sem­ble what I imag­ine a gy­nae­col­o­gist’s con­sult­ing room looks like, with ten­der lit­tle drawings and mod­els of fe­male gen­i­talia ad­ding to the am­bi­ence.

The sec­ond is just around the corner at the Al­liance Fran­caise, where Michael Soi and Thom Ogonga con­tinue their re­lent­less in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Sex and the City, this be­ing their third ex­hi­bi­tion of that name. And it’s fun. Soi, as you would ex­pect of­fers big, bright and cheeky can­vases full of breasts. bot­toms, las­civ­i­ous club­bers and hyp­o­crit­i­cal pas­tors help­ing them­selves to the good­ies even as they clutch their Bi­bles and pray.

Of the seven paint­ings on show, two are from his Con­tem­po­rary Reli­gion se­ries, and are the very ones banned by a po­faced cu­ra­tor at the Na­tional Mu­se­ums of Kenya, while an­other among the chaotic club scenes, is one of four bikini-clad girls, that con­firms not only that sex ex­ists out­side the clubs but that Mom­basa with its beaches is a city too.

Ogonga is fas­ci­nated by the trans­ac­tions of sex… the men in his seven wood­cuts re­main in the shad­ows while the women, bold and brassy, hold their drinks and count the cash.

At l60cm by 120cm apiece, these mono­chrome prints rep­re­sent a con­sid­er­able tech­ni­cal achieve­ment, by sus­tain­ing the im­age across such a large area while keep­ing it taut.

And so to Re­mote at the Goethe (un­til Novem­ber 17) where drawings and mod­els of fe­male gen­i­tals are in your face.

There is clas­si­cal form for that of course, with the French mas­ter Gus­tav Courbet’s Ori­gin of the World, Lu­cien Freud’s in­ti­mate por­trait of one of his wives, and var­i­ous drawings by Henry Moore.

Ad­mis­sion is bravely open to all (“Mummy, mummy, what are those?”) and these works, by the award win­ning Maral Bolouri, are part of her ques­tion­ing of how a woman’s phys­i­cal­ity im­pacts upon her ex­pe­ri­ence of life.

With her de­tailed mod­els and 10 drawings of the pu­denda on light boxes, is one that shows a hook and an­other a snapped noose. There is also a box full of cut out words of­ten used to den­i­grate women… “loose”, “bitch” and so on.

If this had come from a less cred­i­ble and rig­or­ous artist I would have writ­ten it off as ju­ve­nilia de­signed to shock, but even so it risks los­ing its point amid the sen­sa­tion­al­ism of its pro­jec­tion.

Of the other three artists in this show, As­te­ria Mal­inzi, from Tan­za­nia, of­fers two pho­tographs, one a large and mov­ing full length stu­dio por­trait of her­self naked. Her face seems slightly swollen as though with tears and her eyes are sad. Her theme too is one of dis­pos­ses­sion, linked to the anx­i­ety and des­per­ate loss of iden­tity suf­fered by vic­tims of the slave trade.

Elsewhere in the hall Joshua Obaga presents a poem and five tonally dull, bor­ing pho­tographs of a con­torted man’s body un­der the head­ing Troglodytes, said to rep­re­sent the artist’s “chronic ap­pre­hen­sion” about life. Un­for­tu­nately, all it con­veyed to me was the chronic ap­pre­hen­sion that I was un­likely ever to un­der­stand it or ad­mire its qual­ity.

Be­hind a screen, a five-minute video by Jackie Karuti called The Plan­ets presents a world in dan­ger, per­haps from global warm­ing, while spliced into that nar­ra­tive are ques­tions of gen­der, love and iden­tity, all of which make an in­ter­est­ing, if at first view­ing be­wil­der­ing, ex­pe­ri­ence.

Whether you see Re­mote as a valid and ex­cit­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tion of the anx­i­eties that af­fect us all from time to time or an as­sault on com­mon de­cency and taste is for you to de­cide.

(Louis Arm­strong was once asked to de­fine jazz, to which he fa­mously replied, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Like­wise com­mon de­cency and taste.)

As an idle aside, I won­dered what the re­ac­tion would have been to a row of wil­lies on the wall. I sus­pect any such dis­play would have been struck down as lewd, although I guess sen­si­ble peo­ple of both gen­ders (or many) would just laugh.

Also I would have thought the propo­si­tion that our phys­i­cal­ity im­pacts on our ex­pe­ri­ences is blind­ingly ob­vi­ous (and hardly needs an ex­hi­bi­tion to re­in­force the point) but then also ob­vi­ous is the beauty of, say, a flower or a land­scape, and there are many fine paint­ings of those.

One thing is for sure, how­ever. Cen­sor­ship is even worse than of­fend­ing pro­pri­ety. And this show cer­tainly rep­re­sents an ad­vance in tol­er­ance.

All that said and noted, in the finest tra­di­tions of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, if not art cri­ticism, I made my ex­cuses and left.

In com­par­i­son, life in the goose pen seems sim­plic­ity it­self.

Pic­tures: Frank Whal­ley

Girls on the Beach, by Michael Soi, and below, from The Plan­ets, by Jackie Karuti.

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