Shopping is the Western world’s number one leisure activity.
And East Africa is catching up fast. What we want we buy. And for many, shopping has become the new religion.
The malls that proliferate in every city throughout the region are cathedrals of commerce, physically far bigger than church, temple or mosque.
Not for nothing do these places advertise themselves as a Shopper’s Paradise, and proudly state they are offering X-number of square metres of Shopping Heaven.
So there you have it — through your purchases shall ye find salvation.
Except of course that ye won’t.
What ye will find is a maxed-out credit card and sleepless nights.
In this new spiritual order at the heart of every purchase is a barcode… and Barcode is the title of a new exhibition by Kenyan David Thuku, a cofounder of Nairobi’s Brush Tu studio, who is using the show to interrogate our shopping habits and our relentless pursuit of happiness through ever increasing spending.
Through 12 works he examines bit by bit the motives that drive us into the arms of the false god we worship.
Local shoppers prefer foreign goods, he says, because they wrongly believe them to be of higher quality. But this he argues is merely a mindset influenced by slick packaging.
Each product therefore is more an emotion than a physical object we really need. It is an imagined set of improved realities yet our insistence on it changes our lives through the choices we make.
In this exhibition — on until June 10 at the Red Hill Art Gallery off the Limuru Road heading west from Nairobi — Thuku examines patterns of acquisition presented in layers of cut out paper that bear symbols to instruct and thereby transform customers. Us.
The barcodes of the title are a catchall reference because the actual striped codes on the packaging contain all the information needed to register, price and pass on the product to its new owner.
Customers aim to enrich their lives through their purchases and all figures in these pieces are in motion, representing a desire to move towards the better life they hope the goods will bring.
Thuku’s technique is interesting, a cross between a potter’s Sgraffito in which a pattern is incised though a surface glaze and paper cut-outs as practiced by many great artists including Matisse.
However, unlike Matisse, who cut out his figures freehand from sheets of coloured paper, Thuku usually outlines his figures in chalk before taking up the scissors.
He then glues down layers of paper, cutting back to reveal parts of the lower levels. Each work is further embellished using acrylics and spray paint to provide a finely textured finish.
From memory, Thuku is the only artist in the region doing this and it gives his work an immediate, distinctive presence on the wall.
It is a method that produces pictures with a strikingly graphic picture plane and Thuku’s bold use of strong colours creates an effect more akin to carefully fabricated poster art than painting.
Yet it is precisely this use of colour — often unexpected as in Untitled 4 with its blazing reds set against a grey colour field and Untitled 5 in which the accent is on yellow, again vibrant against mid-grey — that in some of the works fools the eye with its variable intensity, creating shifting planes that drag you into and behind the work, enticing viewers to become part of the picture.
To visit this exhibition is to enter a world of symbols that while clear to the artist might need a little unlocking.
Many of the heads of Thuku’s figures are obscured by boxes representing new purchases.
Some bear small images of what you might expect to find inside — in Untitled 1, for example, umbrellas and wine glasses — but beware, the artist seems to be saying, because the goods inside do not always correspond with the symbols outside.
What you are in fact trying to buy is an upwardly mobile lifestyle and that cannot be signified purely by icons on the outside, like umbrellas or wine glasses.
Other boxes carry symbols representing instructions that when followed allow the customer to join the exclusive club of discerning consumers they had always hoped to become.
In Untitled 4 a man stands with his arms hanging loosely by his sides with a birdcage in place of his head. The combination represents not confinement as you might expect but freedom, because the figure is clearly not attempting to remove the cage. He has been entrapped, but willingly so, by the consumer cycle.
One smaller series of six works (Untitled 6 – 11) shows figures staring wide-eyed at the viewer.
These people, holding boxes of goods they have just bought, are presented superficially as silhouettes (cyphers of consumers, if you like) but their open eyes restore their humanity and show they are not dumb victims subsumed by the system but actually are eager customers looking to improve their lives — people just like us.
Let us pray.