GALLERIES: A lyrical & lovely look at the Donald

Saturday February 11 2017

Detail from Off Congress, and right, Meshed

Detail from Off Congress, and right, Meshed Scape 2, by Paul Onditi. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

In a fit of artistic genius, in the early 1970s, I bashed in the sides of a Coke can, mounted it on a plinth and submitted it to an open exhibition.

The title was America’s Shame or some similar self-important nonsense and it was my devastating critique of the Vietnam War.

Luckily for the overall quality of the exhibition, it was rejected by the jury, one of whose members told me later my masterpiece was both lazy and trite.

Now, some 45 years later, the Kenyan artist Paul Onditi demonstrates how such protest art should be made.

It should be more subtle, beautifully crafted, and intrinsically an object of joy as well as a powerful message.

There is nothing wrong with a Coke can as an object of beauty, of course (and it did not take Andy Warhol to show us that) but the fact is that it was not beauty that I had created, and relying on someone’s else’s skills to drive home a point rarely makes the cut.

In his current exhibition, Background Effects, Onditi relies on his own lexicon of symbols, his strong sense of composition and formidable skills as a colourist and manipulator of photographic imagery to create a group of 10 subtle and poetic mixed media works on “synthetic sheet” (in fact, photo-sensitive printing plate) to suggest that the recent election of US President Donald J. Trump may not be an entirely good thing for everyone.

Far be it for me to posit that the super thin-skinned Donald is blundering around the world stage so far out of his depth that he comes across like a dangerous Shakespearean buffoon, alienating all but the witless rednecks who failed to give him the popular vote. But I am told such a view does exist.

It is one to which Onditi may possibly cleave.

In fact this artist became so worried by the emergence and subsequent election of Trump that he spent from Christmas to the end of January creating the series on show at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi, until February 21.

They are few in number, lyrical to look at and powerful in effect.

For once his iconic Everyman, the Chaplinesque figure of Smokey, is not to be seen.

For me that is a blessing, because, although he acted as a vehicle that represented the artist and through him ourselves, a talisman supposed to aid our understanding, for me Smokey was an obstruction, even an irritation in Onditi’s art. I felt he got in the way.

Now we have Onditi’s vision, pure and direct, presented without any intermediary and relying purely on its formal qualities of content, form, composition and colour for success.

It is quite simply, the presentation of a dystopian world under Trump; a realisation of the artist’s fears.

America is shown in collapse, its buildings canted over as though hit by an earthquake — the Capitol in Off Congress being the most obvious example — trees are uprooted and upside down, the environment is ruined, even our language is reduced to a barely intelligible series of repetitive phrases in mirror writing.

Piles of debris and building rubble appear in several works, as do swathes of nets — safety nets — that all decent societies need for the less fortunate but that here catch nothing.

There are only 10 works on show. Of these, three are large (122cm by 112cm), three medium-sized (64cm x 52cm) and four small (42cm x 29cm) and oddly enough it is the smaller works that I think succeed the most.

Perhaps it is because they are less crowded, cleaner and simpler statements of Onditi’s fears; perhaps it is that they represent his vision distilled. Certainly they are elegant, using large areas of white (a metaphor for uncertainty) and greys as foils for exquisite flowerings of dark peach, honey brown, pink and viridian.

These are eye-catching works that beguile with a refulgent beauty carrying a potent message — a premonition of despair. There are precedents for such prescience.

Cases in point are the artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement — Georg Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix — who caricatured the hedonistic lifestyle of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, and whose violent cartoons and paintings shaped by the First World War appeared to foresee the horrors of the Second.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Onditi trained in Germany — at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach am Main, near Frankfurt.

I believe artists are like sensitive radio receivers tuned to an extra channel. They hear things, pick up resonances, that many do not.

With hindsight they are often seen to be right. That is one reason we need them and we need their art.

Perhaps Onditi is now transmitting a message we cannot afford to ignore.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts consultancy based in Nairobi