Sauce for the goose but nor for the gander

Saturday November 11 2017

Girls on the Beach by Michael Soi.

Girls on the Beach, by Michael Soi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

More by this Author

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 po-faced 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.