Even as the sunshine streamed through my window, thunderclouds threatened. The season is supposed to be dry; the reality has been continuing rain, now thankfully replaced by a touch of sunshine.
But what is annoying for most of us, except for those with crops to grow, has found another fan — an artist who welcomes the rain like a farmer standing in parched fields.
He is Ron Lukes, a meticulous painter who has joined the small band of those for whom no detail is too small, no reflection or even tiny imperfection overlooked.
Other Kenyans who have come to notice with this style of photorealism are Clavers Odhiambo with his gigantic close-up portrait of an old woman that stole the show at the 2015 Kenya Art Fair, and Eddy Ochieng’, who attracted attention at last year’s fair with a series of over-lifesize self-portraits showing the effects of water pouring down his face.
Other photorealists include Kelvin Mathenge, with his immaculate pencil drawings, Kibet Kirui, Michael Daman and, in paint, Anthony Wanjohi.
It was Lukes’s treatment of water that was the highlight of his exhibition at the Kobo Trust gallery off Riara Road, at Dagoretti in Nairobi. It was a joint show of 24 paintings, all acrylics on canvas, with Onesmus Okamar — they both have their studios at Kobo — and they offered an interesting contrast in styles.
While Lukes painted every nuance of his subject with the finest camel hair brush, Okamar applied his acrylics in bold, flat sweeps in a series of paintings designed — a key word here — to promote his vision of unity and peace.
Lukes’s fascination with the visual effects of rain can be seen in a number of virtuoso paintings, all of which were made by closely studying photographs taken inside a matatu, looking out.
Rainy Evening II shows rivulets of water smashed across the windscreen while in a companion piece, Love Birds, Lukes improved on the comfort of a couple standing in the rain by thoughtfully giving them an umbrella.
He clearly revels in the skills needed to reproduce every surface, texture and reflection — I saw most things except starched linen, lace and fur — always a challenge, even for the Old Masters — as he works from photographs given to him by friends or taken from the pages of magazines.
The apparent ease with which he reproduced the glittering chrome of two vintage cars was a pleasure to see, as were his paintings of women, sitting or dancing, the texture of their clothing carefully rendered thanks to relentless concentration.
For me photorealism, like a camera, offers a clear representation of the subject — a stunning illustration — while a painterly approach with an instinctive, vigorous brush is more likely to capture the presence and the essence of the subject — its genuine reality, in fact.
There is, however, no doubting Lukes’s skill and, aged only 24, he is going to get better and better.
Okamar, also 24, has developed a standard female figure — sloe-eyed and with a pouting mouth — that appears in almost every painting, several times in some, within a fairly narrow range of poses… profile, full face, head tilted and so on.
Clearly not a real person, she is a symbol for the artist’s pleas for peace, unity and love.
With his strong sense of design and convincing graphic approach, Okamar’s seven paintings are bold, colourful and contain secrets that can be unlocked by talking to the artist and subsequent study. For instance, a book appears frequently in his work, its pages covered with flowers. The pages represent the days of our lives; the flowers the good things that happen to us, our triumphs and joys.
Hopeful narratives, confident work: There is a lot to like.
Museum of tomorrow
Meanwhile, in Kigali, an exhibition called Artefact as Art is on at the Kandt House Museum and in its gardens and surrounding streets, exploring art, photography and storytelling, to ask: “What should be documented today for a museum of tomorrow?”
The idea came from seeing traditional artefacts in Kandt House that presented the interests of the German colonisers as much as the Rwandans themselves; the carefully controlled picture they offered of the peoples they ruled.
The public arts NGO Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga (to create, to see, to learn) put together the project, with support from the country’s national museums and the Goethe Institut to see what objects today’s Rwandans thought would represent them to future generations.
No iPhones or computers were allowed because exhibits were restricted to things not needed by the minute that could therefore be left to display.
Nonetheless, Rwandans responded with a fascinating list that included, as well as traditional woven baskets (agaseke) and milk containers (inkongoro), such modern wonders as dental floss, audio tapes… and the Rubik’s Cube.
I wonder what future generations will make of the Cube? I expect they’ll find it a bit of a puzzle.