A high-flyer heads for a hard landing

Wednesday October 4 2017

Safari ya Mbali artwork. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Safari ya Mbali artwork. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NATION 

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Artists change; nothing is static. Even within the apparent confines of a established style subtle changes can be tracked.

And sometimes it is far more obvious when an artist explores new media — from drawing to sculpture for instance, or from painting to video, or with paintings that evolve into abstraction.

One enduring preoccupation of artists from the Impressionists onwards is how to paint now we have the factual precision attributed (often falsely) to photography.

What new insights can artists offer about the figure, for example, and how do they reinvent painting as a way to record what Francis Bacon called “the trail of the human presence”?

Deliberate blurring is one of these methods (as practised by Beatrice Wanjiku among others) — not as is it is sometimes used, to deconstruct an individual identity, but rather to capture the reality of existence; to get inside the superficial appearance and instead bring the human scent to the surface of a canvas.

I was reminded of this when viewing recent experimental work by the Kenyan Samuel Githui. A full time painter for almost 20 years, he is perhaps best known for his loosely realist paintings of urban life, of traffic jams, crowds, donkeys — which he sees as symbolising the long-suffering of wananchi — and notably, people on bicycles, which for him are icons of their progress.

Abstract patterns

Another parallel series of his that was widely applauded was the Transformation group of 56 charcoal and white chalk drawings made of a moving dancer at Circle Art Gallery’s Paper show in March 2014. I wrote at the time, “Individually they were stunning; together they were sensational.” RAED:

Githui then Abstract patterns most obviously at the Arts to End Slavery exhibition curated by Rose Jepkorir at the Shift Eye Gallery, Nairobi, in August last year.
There he made an installation of covered bottles suspended from a frame set against the backdrop of a video conversation about the fate of a man sold into slavery in Saudi Arabia.

(He had previously dipped a toe into video in 2009 with a piece about the plight of migrants in Venice).

His Shift Eye installation was created jointly with the Eritrean artist Lea Beharne, who lost family members when a migrant boat capsized off Lampedusa, and each suspended bottle represented a victim of the people smugglers.

So, an artist eager to experiment is now revealing his latest attempts to move towards a freer and more flexible form of representation.

The results could be seen at the Kuona Trust, near State House, Nairobi, this past month, where some 17 new paintings were on show.

Githui set the stage and established his credentials with two of his more traditional bicycle paintings, but after that we waved a possibly tearful farewell to the Githui we knew and prepared ourselves for what he might or might not become.

Unknown journey

Like all good artists he is on a journey and, like most, he does not know where it will end but instead states, rather engagingly, “The intent and purpose of these works was… to take a journey to the unknown like a skydiver and hope the parachute will open just before hitting the ground.”

Hopefully even before that, but you get his meaning.

Abstract patterns — looking for an inner balance of composition, colour and emotional expression — form virtually all of the remaining 15 works in this show, apart from three that held my attention.

The first was Safari ya Mbali 1 (Long Journey 1) that showed a head emerging from a black, cream and lilac background, its dreamy face with half closed eyes a dull ochre; splashes of a vivid yellow suggesting a movement towards light. Journey’s end? Forceful, expressionist, I liked it a lot.

Second was called simply Mafuta (Oil). Looking at one moment like a wind blown tree and at another a smear of paint that made a head, I was reminded of those flickering faces you can see in a fire and of Bacon’s comment about, “the trail of the human presence.” A satisfying piece on a number of levels.

The third painting that caught my eye was Untitled 2a, showing a motorbike rider pushing his mount uphill. As an exercise in weight and movement it worked very well.



None of these three was particularly experimental, although each was certainly much broader than we generally get from this artist.

But then the experiments really began with the abstracts that lined the hall.

Experiments are good for their own sake and even better if they lead to a resolution of whatever problems worry their maker.

But on the evidence of the abstracts here — allowing for the courage in making them and the even greater courage in exhibiting them — I hope that the skydiving Githui, an artist I respect, has a firm grip on his parachute after all.