A marriage of creativity, clarity and commerce

Monday April 11 2011

By FRANK WHALLEY

Enthusiasm for the arts is clearly to be seen as much as the paintings and sculptures in one current exhibition.

Around 120 artists have shown their work at the International School of Kenya in Nairobi, in its purpose built arts centre.

But what shines through is the dedication, care and love for the arts of the volunteers — mostly parents — who have organised and manned the show; the sixth they have put on.

They formed Friends Of The Arts (Fota) to help the school and its pupils, both internally and through its outreach programmes.

Twenty-five per cent commission from every sale (and there have been many) goes straight back to help fund the arts.

That figure of 25 per cent, incidentally, is low by commercial standards — commission is generally around 33-40 per cent but can be as high as 50-60 per cent — which might help to account for such an enthusiastic participation by so many quality artists.

The exhibition is well worth a visit, but alas it ends on Sunday, April 12 because the hall is needed for other events.

However, given that this is supposed to be a review of the arts and not the state of the volunteer sector, I can tell you that the hall is packed with work that offers as good a cross section as you are likely to find anywhere of what is happening in the arts in East Africa.

If I have a caveat, it is that most of it veers towards the predictable and, with a few exceptions, there is not much that is new to see.

Exceptions? Well, two paintings by Alex Mbevo, a pupil of Patrick Mukabi, reveal potential.

Both Bike Boy and Maji Baridi are tonal studies well sustained over a large area, losing none of their strength in the process.

And on the sculpture front, Peter Walala is showing his new technique of carving from laminated blocks of oiled eucalyptus.

It adds vitality, seen to advantage in a seated, headless figure called Marci wa Diani, which glows against the matt black surround.

There were other good things, as well... for instance, three charcoal drawings of heads by Peterson Kamwathi which, in spite of the tight framing, shone with the clarity of close observation.

Xavier Verhoest’s thoughtful pictures Deposit of Silence and You Dare to Whisper in the Desert, possessed an ethereal beauty typical of much of his recent work, while Mary Collis showed two colourful paintings of her garden, and a still life with flowers in a blue vase. They lit up her bay in the hall.

There was an enjoyable Nile Perch sculpted in bas-relief from scrap metal by Alex Wainaina which would be superb displayed on a kitchen wall, or perhaps under glass as a coffee table.

I think Wainaina might have anticipated that thought by offering his sculpture in a museum-style vitrine.

Michael Soi always has some pertinent point to make and his painting The Champions — champions at corruption — railed against graft.

And then there were the Larissa Hoops, which constituted a rare showing by an excellent artist.

At the Salon was a telling collage, littered with the ephemera of a visit to the world of curly kits and rollers and seen from the viewpoint of the hairdresser, whose feet can be glimpsed at the bottom centre.

Next to that Hoops showed a set from her Breakfast Table series... the photo-realism of the bacon rashers, egg and sausages caught my eye.

Unfortunately, her pictures were hung too low for comfort. Generally paintings should be at a median eye level.

Heaven knows, I’m short at 5ft 5in, but surely I shouldn’t have to crouch to view the works.

We do not see enough of this talented young artist. Combining painting and collage, she offers something fresh and exciting — and that is in rather short supply.

OK: A Leonardo is a Leonardo is a Leonardo. And we think we know what a Van Gogh looks like, with those starry, starry stabs of paint by that rowdy Dutchman with an injured ear.

Yes, consistency of vision is admirable. But look at a typical Goya, say, and compare that with his later paintings of demons and giants.

There was change, and a marked one at that, albeit within a recognisable oeuvre.

Artists are usually on a voyage of self-discovery and as revelations occur, styles as well as subjects might be expected to change or at least to develop.

We seem to be left with a strange dichotomy that sees many artists content to plough the same old furrow and not to push themselves into pastures new, while others thrash around copying any style that sells, without a thought to an overall vision.

What is needed is a strong and hopefully unique statement, enhanced by judicious experimentation and development.

So why don’t we get much of it?

Is it complacency, idleness, fear of the unknown, inability or just plain greed?

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]