GALLERIES: Having courage to tread a hard path

Saturday February 10 2018

Kericho III, and Madison (left), by Coster Ojwang’. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Kericho III, and Madison (left), by Coster Ojwang’. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

By FRANK WHALLEY
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I so admire David Hockney.

From enfant terrible of the 1960s to now, aged 80, the Grand Old Man of British Art, he has been forever in our faces; endlessly innovative and delightfully a contrarian.

With his unashamed heavy smoking and his original thoughts — including the fact that the Old Masters used lenses to help produce their paintings — he has a common touch that has wide popular appeal.

Painter, print-maker, draughtsman, photographer, film-maker and always eager to embrace new technology (he is an enthusiast for the iPad app Brush) it is hard to think of anything in the arts he has not touched.

And he is always provocative, challenging us with comments that spin from him like the sparks from a Catherine wheel.

His latest sally was in an interview in Intelligent Life, the magazine of The Economist.

He told the writer Karen Wright that the trouble with much of contemporary art was that it focused on ideas rather than painting.

I quote: “‘No-one wants to simply paint a tree,’ he says. ‘That is because it’s too hard for most of them. They just want to take an idea. Painting is harder than ideas.”’

It was therefore a pleasure to visit an exhibition by a Kenyan artist who has chosen that hard path of painting to tread.

He is Coster Ojwang’, aged only 26, who has had the courage to give easel painting a shot. And he paints trees. Lots of them, in fact.

Known from the Lake Basin Group clustered around Kisumu, and trained at the Mwangaza Art School, he is now based in Nairobi and after three years as a full time painter is having his first one-man show.

The result is if not work in progress, then certainly style in progress.

It can be seen at The Norfolk hotel in Nairobi, which is having something of an artistic moment.

Long home to a suite of paintings by Timothy Brooke, completed while Out of Africa was being filmed in 1985, general manager Antoine Lhuguenot has decided to put The Norfolk back on the arts map with regular exhibitions; the first, in association with William Ndwiga’s peripatetic Little Art Gallery, being that of some 30 paintings by Ojwang’. They are mostly landscapes with a few portraits and some bustling street scenes to salt the stew.

Ojwang’s portrait of Picasso is a brave attempt and he has captured the burning black eyes, but the identity of the sitter is best guessed from the title rather than the canvas.

The Dance shows confident figure drawing, while Madison and I am Me echo two of his mentors Patrick Kinuthia and Adrian Nduma in their vigorous attack and apparently random dabs and slashes of extraneous colour.

His landscapes, the four Kericho paintings for example, demonstrate a more structured approach, although even in these the odd gestural mark finds its way onto the canvas. In Kericho III, one group of trees appears to have been festooned with Christmas baubles.

And that brings us to the nub of it.

For what we are seeing in this exhibition, inaccurately called “Contemporary Impressionism” (on until February 17), is an artist valiantly trying to balance three aims — to capture the reality before him, to express his emotional response to it and to make an attractive picture.

Doesn’t seem too much when you read it quickly.

Yet at the top of the scale people have lost all their friends and ruined their health attempting it (Cezanne); gone mad and killed themselves (Van Gogh); and abandoned family, home and career then ended up suffering an unpleasant death from syphilis (Gauguin).

This pursuit of a painterly reality seems to ally Coster Ojwang’ not with the Impressionists, who were concerned primarily with the effects of light, but with the Post Impressionists who sought to show us the attractions of the bones beneath the skin.

And that means that Ojwang’, with the same aim, could not have set the bar any higher.

He told me he had not heard of Cezanne and took his influences locally from others trying to paint in similar vein, namely Kinuthia and Nduma, and also Elias Mung’ora.

From Kinuthia he has learnt structure; from Mung’ora come tonal accuracy as an aid to form and the importance of drawing; and from Nduma, unfortunately, the habit of flecking his canvases with splashes of colour either to make them prettier or in the belief they help to lock a composition together.

Kinuthia does that too, but in his case the marks usually accentuate passages elsewhere and increase visual tension.

So to Ojwang’ I say: Please go to the source. Studying Cezanne would help him to understand structure and the relevance of those marks; from Van Gogh would come projecting emotion; and Gauguin’s work would show him the power of design and intense, tropical colour.

To you I say: Please go to see Ojwang’s paintings at The Norfolk.

You will be supporting a renewed enthusiasm for art at one of the region’s leading hotels and more importantly, encouraging an artist who is trying to be exciting and relevant while uplifting your spirits.

He’s having a go and I think Hockney would be proud of him.