Come up and see Kimathi some time

Friday February 1 2013


The late, great actress Mae West, she of the suggestive shoulders and outrageous wiggle, had a nice way with a louche one-liner. “Come up and see me some time,” delivered with an oh-so-broad wink, was just the start of it.

Another one that left audiences helpless was: “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” It came from the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, in which she starred with Cary Grant.

The seductive Ms West would have enjoyed Richard Kimathi’s current exhibition at the One-Off garden gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi.

There Kimathi, an artist of unfailing intelligence, offers three paintings of men who each have a pistol for a penis. It brings a whole new meaning to shoot to kill.

In one, a man stands alone, in another two men huddle together and in the third a man stands next to a naked woman. In all three, the poses are hunched and diffident, the pistols painted strikingly white against grey flesh. In muted tones the figures stand sentinel over our vanities.

Kimathi’s comment on male insecurity unsuccessfully masked by aggression could not have been better timed.

It comes as President Barack Obama battles the American firearms lobby to bring some sense to that country’s crazy gun laws and hopefully forestall another mass murder.

Yet curiously Kimathi completed the series just three weeks before the latest shooting sprees began with the Batman cinema massacre in Colorado, in July 2012.

Who dares say that artists do not have some sort of sixth sense that foretells disaster? And who dares deny that, as Oscar Wilde put it, life imitates art?

The other six paintings in this show deal with the ambiguities of ageing and the social pressures on our children, particularly teenage daughters. They give the show its name: Little Dresses.

Each picture is of one or two girls, perhaps in their early teens — not exactly children, not yet women — wearing similar white shift dresses, little ankle socks and shoes.

They do not wear make up and their expressions are neutral, hard to read, even though mostly they stare straight back at the viewer with glittering eyes.

The girls stand just like young teens, slightly self-conscious, one with her legs crossed, too aware of themselves.

The girl in Yellow Rings has two piglets at her feet — the obsession with pets, the weirder the better, that marks our childhoods — while another, in Crossed, twiddles a pair of glasses with bright yellow lenses. Their colour matches her cute little socks.

Now look again.

See the mature shape of the girls’ calves; their adult clumpy shoes; their eyes marked by vivid colours, maybe from cosmetic contact lenses; the oddly thinning hair that recedes over broad foreheads.

Are these early teens or old ladies; or maybe both?

This ambiguity is a deliberate expression of the social and commercial pressures on children to conform, to grow too quickly, to age before their time.

All nine paintings in this show are of the same size — 145cm by 100cm — and all are the same price: Ksh225,000 ($2,568).

Kimathi is a great one for themed exhibitions… not ones simply bound by a title, which is the usual thing, but ones in which each painting resonates against the next, offering insight each to the other.

They remind me of old LPs like Sgt Pepper, Tommy and The Wall.

I am thinking here too of Kimathi’s last show at the One-Off, last March, which included four works called Colourful Rain, each of which added value and understanding to the next.

Superficially abstract but in fact entirely realistic, they were created by poking lengths of coloured string through the canvases — from 300 to 600 pieces a picture — to resemble raindrops falling at different intensities, from drizzle, to a summer shower, then a steady downpour and finally a sudden storm.

These were imaginative works that were simple in conception, immaculate in construction and spellbinding in effect.

Kimathi has that rare combination of interesting ideas and the ability to express them with clarity and verve. With him, the sum really is greater than its parts.

In this year’s offering, Little Dresses, the girls in particular seem like sisters and it would be good if some wealthy collector (and they are here among us, even if they do not shout it out) ensured this family stayed together by buying the lot.

These provocative and vaguely disturbing paintings are being offered separately, however, and no doubt they will go to different homes.

Kimathi achieves a lot with a little, my only initial caveat being to wonder for how long the pictures would live on the wall.

Yet even when you have the concept in your mind, there is still plenty to enjoy… the brevity of expression — the neat distillation of the ideas — the strength of execution, the rigour of the draughtsmanship and perhaps above all, the beauty of the paint.

This is a minimalist and striking exhibition that confirms Kimathi’s place among the region’s leading artists.

It is on for two more months, until March 27.

Go up and see it some time.

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