Painting, like music, is among the most accessible of the arts. But just as dissonance and atonal scales may make you wonder if the composer knows his ears from his elbows, so some paintings can take time to reveal their full meanings.
Often they do so while pleasing the eye with their colours, forms and compositions. Yet deeper pleasures await.
The canvases of Francis Bacon for example beguile with their ravishing colour combinations (lemon against grey, and mauve with a pale beige) and overall harmony yet initially puzzle, even repel, with their distortions and depictions of raw flesh as the artist aims to uncover a higher and more brutal truth.
Then there is the vexing question of why Picasso put one eye on top of the other and the nose upside down. Well, it’s not quite like that but it has to do with finding a new visual reality.
And as with the great names of European art history (going back, both Leonardo and Carravagio invented new ways to describe the commonplace) so too with the artists who move among us.
If you look at Peterson Kamwathi’s Sheep series from 2006-08, you will see well drawn peaceful creatures, renowned for grazing safely beside still waters. There are around 12 of them, plus numerous studies, all beautifully realised in charcoal; the animals standing, ambling along or with their heads turned back, returning our stares.
But see the shadows they cast and, knowing that for Kamwathi sheep represent wananchi facing a variety of threats — conflict with weaponry both conventional and nuclear — you see a lot more as well. I think the symbolism not only informs the formal qualities of his work but also adds to our enjoyment of it.
Of course, as Kamwathi points out, if you wish to bypass the issues he has disclosed you need not use the symbolic aspects of the work to unlock deeper meanings… simply enjoy the drawings for the insight their realism offers and relish the technical skill with which they have been made.
And this is true too, I think, of another artist enjoying a measure of international success — Gor Soudan.
In his current exhibition, Imprints (at the Red Hill Gallery on the road from Nairobi to Limuru, until January 25) his intense assemblies of tiny ink dashes on backgrounds stained light magenta, turquoise or left plain, are attractive enough to enjoy for their own sake.
Lose yourself in the swirls and eddies of the marks that dance across the fine rice paper and the delicacy of the colours that delineate their stage.
The knowledge that this show is devoted to Soudan’s study of how we enclose space, and thus our inner space made tangible, through an interpretation of door frames, windows and various industrial elements like steel cutouts and grilles, can only add to our pleasure.
There are also indications made particularly apparent in one of his sculptures, that Soudan also continues to be concerned about the process of creating art.
This was a trait first shown in his exhibition Join the Dots, at the Circle gallery in September 2015. There he showed drawings with similar ink dashes that examined the possibility of making coherent imagery from what may appear at first to be random marks.
Eight of Soudan’s drawings at Red Hill are based on the chip-carved door frames found on the Kenyan Coast, and in these the patterns of the carvings are transferred to paper like brass rubbings, using graphite. They stand surrounded by the small gestural marks that help to project their presence.
Window grilles and those of ventilation ducts also attract the artist’s attention — and the power of his imagination — while other works celebrate the enclosure produced by rubbings of a steel cut-out that carries resonances of an igloo or a motorcycle helmet.
At least three of the 25 or so drawings are sliced and opened out — one of them like a side-hung window — so they enter the viewer’s space, creating an added closeness between artist and onlooker.
There are two sculptures; one a log lying in the corner of the gallery that we are left to admire for its quiet integrity, the other a long branch cut from high in a tree that Soudan has rubbed with graphite and then wrapped in a ribbon of rice paper, imprinting its features that he then augmented with sweeps of his trademark ink lines.
The paper is suspended loosely next to the branch, which has then been covered with hinges and screws and the two — the model and its erstwhile clothing — rebound and echo, each against the other.
It is in this work that Soudan’s twin passions — the enclosure of space and the methodology of the artistic process — become clear.
Here the enclosure is peeled back like raw skin, the imprint of the subject revealed and enhanced with new sets of gestural scripts and the process of its creation laid bare.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts consultancy based in Nairobi.