Join the famous five and go on a journey

Friday July 29 2016

Landscape, by Paul Onditi (left) and Head by

Landscape, by Paul Onditi (left) and Head by Eltayeb Dawalbeit. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

A mixed exhibition of work by gallery artists provides interesting juxtapositions, but is also a neat way of filling that awkward gap between scheduled shows.

A case in point is the Red Hill gallery on the road from Nairobi to Limuru where a Famous Five group of artists are inviting you to join them on what has been called appropriately enough, A Journey through the Gallery.

It follows the show of detailed landscapes by Camille Wekesa (which sold strongly) and comes before the next solo exhibition by Gor Soudan, slated for September.

So for one month only folks, and before your possibly startled eyes, five artists with settled reputations offer 32 works, mostly on paper, apart from three canvases by Justus Kyalo.

Two of these are apparent abstracts that turn out to be straightforward Impressionist paintings — they capture the play of light on the surface of the sea — while the third is from his series examining portals and pathways — an abstract that is sufficiently allusive to be almost literal.

Then there is a suite of 15 ink drawings by the obsessive Willie Wambugu; a group of eight drawings by Soudan; three splendid heads by Eytayeb Dawalbeit, and three mixed media offerings by Paul Onditi, fresh from his successful exhibition in New York.

If sheer size wins the day, then Onditi takes the prize at Red Hill with a drawing two metres high and 1.7metres wide.

With its hectic imagery and bright, almost neon colours it dominates the room. Nearby are two smaller drawings by him in a similar vein.

All three feature Onditi’s alter ego Smoky, set against a background of photographs and drawings of cranes, brick walls, barbed wire fences, skeleton trees and cityscapes (including the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in the large painting, so we can safely assume this is a reflection of endlessly expanding Nairobi) and marked by the palette of pollution; the oranges of chemically infused chimney smoke, the blue-grey of waste water and the yellows and pinks of mineral soaked pools.

Admirers find in these works a powerful statement about the alienation of people caught up in an industrialised society collapsing under the weight of its own pollution.

Detractors see only chaos in both composition and colouring as the artist frantically attempts to clarify his thoughts.

An interesting counterpoint is provided by the symbolic portraits of Eltayeb. Based on the priestly sculpted heads of ancient Nubian art, these have a quiet grandeur that continues to excite.

Although Eltayeb works in muted colours, one work in particular, in a ravishing combination of red against a deep green mottled background, offers a point of calm contemplation amid the noise.

Then we have the Wambugus — drawings of ordinary objects, which he isolates to imbue them with an extraordinary beauty.

A poet of everyday things, he has in the past presented sofas, chairs and stools for us to admire. This time (and occasionally in the past too) his offerings include a bent nail, a basket, a bunch of keys, combs and a penknife… all taken out of context so we are invited to see them afresh, perhaps to accept them as objets d’art.

These are drawings in ink on paper when (as I have suggested before) they scream out to be etchings, which would give him both a finer line and the depth of tone they deserve. It worked for his soulmate, the American Jim Dine, one of the first to highlight the beauty of the commonplace with his etchings of pliers and bolt cutters, bathrobes and paintbrushes, and I believe it would work for Wambugu too.

Soudan shows eight drawings, four of which are of thin inked lines playing like twisted wires around sudden shocks of colour, including sprayed silver paint. The other four are dark and mysterious, carrying hints of creatures from the deep, slender arms waving like anemones tipped in white and dragging us towards our fears.

Although not formally in the exhibition and certainly not for sale, the gallery name is spelt out on the floor in letters made of tin sheets painstakingly stitched together by Kota Otieno, showing yet again that there is no shortcut to success.

Just as a painting layers in the time it took to create, so this careful assembly delights with its integrity.

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