Art: Six of the best

At Nairobi’s Red Hill Gallery, re­gional tal­ent on dis­play

The East African - - FRONT PAGE - Frank Whalley, Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent

GAL­LERIES: A wall hang­ing protests with Christ-like sym­bol­ism the plight of mi­grants, as do copies of visas and draw­ings of tum­bling boxes, while shim­mer­ing ab­stracts, dif­fer­ing cul­tures and con­sumerism are all in the mix

East Africa, flow­ing with milk and sticky with honey … lands peo­ple flee to and not from.

South Su­danese, So­ma­lis, Ethiopi­ans, Con­golese … they come in search of suc­cour and find it here.

In spite of all the cor­rup­tion, claims of dodgy elec­tions and oc­ca­sional out­breaks of mass mur­der, here are safe havens where peo­ple can pros­per, bask in the sun, put down roots, and where the corn grows as high as an ele­phant’s eye etc etc etc.

All the more in­ter­est­ing, then, that so many of our artists find the har­row­ing jour­ney­ing of mi­grants so fas­ci­nat­ing.

Per­haps it is a case of, “There but for the grace of God go I,” or just a nat­u­ral sym­pa­thy for those worse off than them­selves; the con­trast be­tween the mi­grants and their own com­par­a­tive sta­bil­ity. Per­haps too it was brought home in Kenya, for ex­am­ple, by the mis­ery of the 650,000 cit­i­zens who be­came refugees in their own coun­try fol­low­ing the post-elec­tion vi­o­lence of 2007.

What­ever the rea­sons, the sub­ject con­tin­ues to ex­cite artists and in­spire their work.

So pay at­ten­tion and take a les­son while you look.

Ex­am­ples to hand in­clude paint­ings and draw­ings by three of the six artists cur­rently show­ing at the Red Hill Art Gallery, some 30 kilo­me­tres west of Nairobi off the road to Limuru. The ex­hi­bi­tion called Artists’ Se­lec­tion presents un­til mid-oc­to­ber the work of Sa­muel Githinji, Onys Martin and Churchill On­gere — all of whom num­ber mi­gra­tion among their con­cerns — plus Jus­tus Kyalo, Gor Soudan and David Thuku.

Githinji’s bold pres­ence is headed by a large wall hang­ing — 2.2 me­tres high by 2 me­tres wide — that re­mains un­ti­tled, so no clues there.

Ex­e­cuted on su­gar sacks, it re­veals a cen­tral fig­ure wear­ing a stylised crown of thorns, flanked by two oth­ers; the eyes of all three ob­scured by a heavy blood-red bar. The colour of suf­fer­ing is also in the back­ground and on the loin cloth of the cen­tral fig­ure. The com­po­si­tion, the colours and the crown ref­er­ence the Cru­ci­fix­ion, yet all three fig­ures are stand­ing with their shoul­ders slumped and arms dan­gling.

Surely this is an icon of suf­fer­ing for our in­ac­tion, even as we watch mi­grants be­ing plucked from their cap­siz­ing boats, crawl­ing up un­wel­com­ing beaches and stab­bing each other in hos­tile camps.

The theme is echoed in two sin­gle fig­ures by Githinji, their eyes also con­cealed, on the ad­join­ing wall.

Onys Martin, an un­fail­ingly in­ter­est­ing artist, presents nine lar­gish (75cm by 55cm) mixed me­dia draw­ings on pa­per that in­ter­ro­gate as­pects of the an­guish felt by mil­lions of dis­placed peo­ple trekking from Africa and the Mid­dle and Far East across fron­tiers in search of peace.

His fig­ures, in black ink, wash, stand, walk and in one case col­lapse in de­spair against a back­ground en­livened by pho­to­copies of pass­ports and visas. The fact that they are all ex­cel­lent life draw­ings helps to make this state­ment even more pow­er­ful.

The­ory of space

Martin is also show­ing a group of four pen and ink draw­ings on small sketch­book pages un­der the gen­eral ti­tle of The­ory of Space.

They show sin­gle fig­ures, each partly ob­scured by finely drawn net­ting, and work on two lev­els — firstly as the ex­per­i­ments of an artist play­ing with the place­ment of his sub­ject on the pic­ture plane, and se­condly as a metaphor for re­al­ity, rep­re­sented by the fig­ures, be­ing pro­moted or ob­scured by events, the net­ting.

Churchill On­gere of­fers three draw­ings from his re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion Sus­pen­sions in which ev­ery­day objects in­clud­ing chairs and open boxes sym­bol­ise un­cer­tainty, chaos and vi­o­lence — the refugees’ predica­ment.

The boxes are por­tals of pos­si­bil­i­ties; any­thing could come out of them. In white ink, they sashay on a back­ground of other objects (gravel and leaves, for in­stance) laid on the pa­per and then spray painted, re­veal­ing the im­print of their ghostly pres­ence.

Adding lus­tre to this ex­cel­lent show are Kyalo, Soudan and Thuku.

Two ab­stracts by Jus­tus Kyalo hung on the out­side walls of the gallery have the artist con­tin­u­ing his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with pour­ing acid onto iron sheets and de­vel­op­ing the stain. In one, the acid pat­terns the sheet with­out elab­o­ra­tion, while in the other, the marks of its bite are en­hanced with oil and acrylic paints in shim­mer­ing blues and del­i­cate touches of um­ber, off­set by white.

Wholly ab­stract, they nonethe­less con­jured up for me vi­sions of the land­scape near Kyalo’s stu­dio in Kiten­gela.

Four paint­ings by Soudan are from his Bub­bles & Shells se­ries, com­pleted while he was mov­ing be­tween Nairobi, Free­town in Sierra Leone and Tokyo, and are said to ex­plore the so­cial and cul­tural dif­fer­ences in th­ese cities.

And then we have Thuku’s two mixed me­dia works, seen pre­vi­ously in his ex­hi­bi­tion

Bar code, in which he as­sem­bled lay­ers of cut-out pa­per to con­sider our shop­ping habits and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness through end­less pur­chas­ing.

And all the art­works are, of course, for sale…

Pic­ture: Frank Whalley

Un­ti­tled wall hang­ing by Sa­muel Githinji.

Un­ti­tled ab­stract by Jus­tus Kyalo. Pic­ture: Frank Whalley

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