GALLERIES: Survival in a world of chaos and strife

Saturday November 26 2016

Untitled, by Joel Lukhovi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Untitled, by Joel Lukhovi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

An intriguing little exhibition called Supply and Demand occupied The Art Space recently.

Consisting of constructions and paintings by Collin Sekajugo and photographs by Joel Lukhovi, it looked at the way people interact, change and adapt within our consumer-driven culture.

Spread over two rooms and the staircase landing of the gallery, off Riverside Drive, Nairobi, Supply and Demand has since given way to a brave show of vibrant paintings by Patrick Kinuthia… superficially at least a bit of a breather from the need to think.

Kinuthia’s paintings of young women and the country lanes around Nairobi present a world seemingly at peace and apparently standing apart from the intellectual rigour of the current trend to “interrogate” this and “examine” that.

In fact, you can find eternity in a lingering look or the flash of a smile and while accessibility is hardly an issue in most portraits and landscapes, reading the entwined shadows of trees, or the way light dances through scudding clouds requires as much disciplined thought as any number of trendily obscure installations.

But I’ll leave that for another day.

In Supply and Demand, Sekajugo used his well-known motif of the jerrican to explore the subject; its universal presence and multiple uses a handy metaphor for our own variations on the theme of getting through life.

Thus one wall sculpture had a decorated jerry can filled with shoes — symbolic of the choices we face simply to get moving — while another had a small door cut into the front; an opening perhaps into the range of possibilities that confront us on a daily basis.

Sekajugo’s paintings were big and bold, again of jerricans shoved together — the jumble of urban existence — drawn with confident strokes and presented in a rich, dark palette. There were six of them, speaking eloquently of the struggle to survive in a world of chaos and strife.

Sekajugo described the predicament with force and energy. What he did not do, so far as I could see, was to suggest solutions.

He strikes me then as an artist who is descriptive rather than prescriptive but there again, perhaps he feels that examining our condition and thus increasing our awareness of it is a sufficient service to offer.

Sharing the exhibition but hanging only three small photographs in black and white, Lukhovi invited us to think his contribution was modest compared with the explosion of paint and plastic elsewhere in the gallery.

Yet oddly enough it is Lukhovi’s small photographs that I remember most.

They focused on everyday sights in the city…. of a block of flats with washing strung to dry out along endless balconies; of electronic goods like speakers and amplifiers jammed together behind wire netting; of rows of second-hand shoes lined up for sale.

It is what we see, what we know, all we expect. Simple but memorable, these photographs tell us, “Yes, this is how we live.” And they also ask the question, “But why?”, followed by, “Surely we can hope for something better?”

Social commentary. Subtle, but acute.

They whetted my appetite for more and gave a tantalising glimpse of Lukhovi’s skills — artistic, technical and political.

Elsewhere, another photographer with a knowing eye and a taste for social commentary is the Ugandan Muyingo Siraj, deservedly overall winner of the fifth Uganda Press Photo Awards currently exhibiting in Kampala.

Whereas Sekajugo and Lukhovi find their subjects in an urban setting, Siraj searches the countryside.

All three find something worrying.

Siraj’s tender image of a child sheltering beneath an umbrella while working as a human scarecrow won him first prize of a Canon 7D camera kit.

This photo works both as a self-contained work of art and as a quiet protest against child labour.

On a formal level, the extraordinary lighting of the foreground presents the girl with her worn face and passive stare within the halo of the umbrella against a lowering sky; it is a tender and moving picture. Knowing that this girl was there specifically to scare birds off crops adds a narrative that constitutes a clear comment about the unwarranted exploitation of children generally.

From the photographer’s point of view, assuming it was this knowledge that moved him sufficiently to make the picture, its creation carries echoes of what the late and much lamented Leonard Cohen called an attempt to find balance in the chaos of existence.

And thus, a direct link with the far more experienced Sekajugo and Lukhovi and their exhibition at The Art Space… paintings, wall sculptures and photographs that unlike Siraj’s winning photo show not one actual human but only the traces of their lives.

Siraj’s photo was selected from a shortlist of 24 finalists across seven categories — news, daily life, portrait, creative, sport, nature and story — by an international jury who announced the winners earlier this month at the opening of an exhibition of entries, at the Uganda Museum in Kampala. The show will run until December 10.

Next up, youth takes a bow with the Press Photo award team inaugurating this year a Young Photographer Award.

The winner will be announced at the end of this month — in good time for Christmas.

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