At first sight the cartoonist Patrick Gathara appears to be that rare character, a physics and maths student who became an artist.
We tend to think of maths and the arts as being at opposite ends of the spectrum.
But in doing so we are wrong. For there is a long and close association between mathematics, science and art.
The ancient Egyptians and the Greeks combined the disciplines with ease, demonstrating their knowledge of the Golden Mean, while the Italian artists Brunelleschi and Masaccio in the early 15th century established the principle of the vanishing point, cracking the problem of perspective — getting three dimensions to exist on a two dimensional plane.
In fact the most technical of all the Renaissance works on perspective was by Piero della Francesca who, as well as being one of the pre-eminent artists of the period, was also one of the age’s leading mathematicians.
Then, of course, there was the polymath Leonardo, as much of a scientist and engineer as an artist, and to bring us up to date the impossible perspectives of the much loved M.C. Escher.
So working in a long tradition, comes Gathara, aged 37, based in Nairobi — a man who by his own admission played too much rugby, drank too much beer and spent too little time in the lecture hall and library of Moi University.
Leaving without taking his degree he went to art college for a year but found that too restrictive and left to develop what had been his childhood hobby as his career.
Now Gathara runs the Association of East African Cartoonists and publishes his work on his own blog, Gathara.blogspot.com
Technically he is a caricaturist like the best of the rest — Gado in the Nation, Vic Ndula in the Nairobi Star and Maddo in the Standard.
Cartoons as insulting squibs enjoyed a flowering in 18th century England when the Prince Regent, later George lV, was the butt of many cruel jokes about his grossly fat figure and his equally gross appetites.
Today, thank heavens, cartoonists are still with us to prick pomposity, make telling points, have us think a little of the absurdities of life and give us a laugh on the way.
Gathara excels in all these criteria, as can be seen in his new book, Gathara Will Draw For Food now available at bookshops in Nairobi, with part of the proceeds pledged to the Red Cross for famine relief.
Here’s a man who puts his money where his mouth is — or at least his pencil and his wit.
Unlike newspaper cartoonists who use a heavy outline to withstand the poor paper quality of newsprint, Gathara draws primarily with pencil, preferring delicate shading to allow his subjects to emerge from the page rather than be defined by a series of strong ink lines.
He focuses on faces, with expressions often captured from photographs.
Typically, his subjects’ foreheads are narrowed, the cheekbones and jowls extended beyond reality and the ears made even bigger than those of Prince Charles.
The plasticity of his subjects’ faces is relentlessly — and lovingly — explored. Exploited might be a better word.
Gathara’s distortions are those of a sculptor working with plasticine, a pulled nose here, a flattened chin there, keeping just within the boundaries of possibility.
In fact, at times, Gathara seems to lose himself in the sheer joy of drawing these fat, sprawling faces as, with a virtuoso’s control, he sends oleaginous wads of flesh in whatever direction he pleases — and occasionally ends up losing the likeness.
His drawing of Kofi Annan, for instance, had me searching for the name, as did several others in this book.
However, his portraits of Raila Odinga and William Ruto quaffing beer were more like their subjects than they are like themselves.
And that is one of the beauties of good caricature.
It can capture a feature and pin it to the page then embed it in our consciousness in a way that a camera rarely can.
Kiraitu’s mouth is one good example, or Martha Karua’s ferocious glare.
Gathara’s cartoon of her vigorously defending the president against his critics (in this case the media and envoys) while accidentally whacking him on the head with her handbag was prescient to say the least.
And although occasionally his subjects might be hard to define, when he does get it right he spears his subjects to the paper with such force that you’ll never look at them the same way again… rather as the comedian Walter Mong’are has forever defined former president Moi as doing the ndombolo.
Gathara’s ability to distil a series of expressions or characteristics into one drawing presents a far more rounded picture of its subject — and it’s not always one that is viewed by its victim with glee.
However, president Moi was said to have been quietly amused by Gado’s cartoons of him, and the late Sharif Nassir loved the same artist’s drawings of him as a whirling dervish waving a scimitar. Their tolerance does them great credit.
If only others had been so wise.
Uhuru Kenyatta (not drawn kindly by Gathara, who shows him droopy eyed and with a saturnine sneer) disliked Gado’s habitual depiction of him wearing a nappy and carrying a baby’s bottle labelled Brookside. Far better, I feel, if Uhuru had embraced the joke. It would have drawn the sting.
It is, of course, a cartoonist’s job to be offensive and the victims should not complain.
It is a sign of their importance that they should be seen as worth drawing in the first place.
Like some American cartoonists, Gathara seems to be as concerned with the quality of the drawing as he is with the point of the joke, although he can be as barbed as any of them, often daring to go where few others would venture — possibly because he does not have the discipline of a nervous editor on his back.
For instance, one drawing shows a customer asking a boss at Nakumatt below a motto reading: You need it, we’ve got it — “Quick, I need a fire escape.” Answers the boss, “Sorry, we haven’t got it.”
Tasteless? Probably. Insensitive? Certainly. Funny? You judge. I doubt if it would have been published in a mainstream newspaper so soon after the event. But a classy news magazine…?
Another shows the president standing next to First Lady Lucy and stating “I wish to remind Kenyans that I have only one wife.” Lucy is labelled “Current Constitution.” A cunning twist on two current events.
His drawings of the president, Mama Lucy, William Ruto, and Police Commissioner Maj Gen Hussein Ali are simply brilliant.
Gathara has a daring, original and remarkable talent. Someone with a classy magazine should rush to give the man a job.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a media and fine arts consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]