Lost millions with nothing left to lose

Saturday February 20 2016

Left, New Article by Shabu Mwangi; right, Bantu River by Sidney Mang’ong’o. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY

Left, New Article by Shabu Mwangi; right, Bantu River by Sidney Mang’ong’o. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

Sixties wild child Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”…

Fifty years later the point is proved with migrants in their millions streaming from Africa and the Middle East across Europe.

Their lives shredded by strife, they are desperate for security and the chance to build a better life.

They are willing to die — and many have — for the sake of the freedom to live safely as they choose.

“You have to understand no-one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” is a point often made; most recently by the artist Onyis Martin in an exhibition devoted to Freedom/Flight/Refuge.

Featuring six of Kenya’s most promising young artists, it is on at the Circle Gallery in Lavington, Nairobi, until March 13 and is accompanied by an immaculate full-colour catalogue.

As well as Martin they’re are Jackie Karuti, Sidney Mang’ong’o, Shabu Mwangi, Longinos Nagila and the photographer Ray Piwi Ochieng'.

Works include 25 paintings, drawings and photographs plus two eloquent installations, one of which, by Karuti, is offered behind a closed-off section of the gallery.

The quote from Martin comes from a painting that includes such other telling comments as, “I want to go home but home is the mouth of a shark.”

A group of three ink-wash drawings called Papers of Freedom by the same artist explores aspects of vulnerability through the human form. Collaged visas speak of freedom as an illusion; restrictions as reality.

Martin uses an installation to cut to the chase.

On the floor in the centre of the gallery wallows a broken boat, surrounded by the masks of migrants who have drowned.

Another powerful installation is by Karuti, who offers a fleet of little boats afloat on a map of the world. They are in a glass tank and we are encouraged to propel them across the miniature sea. Those made of folded paper soon become waterlogged and sink. Others made of plastic sheeting survive. In the background plays a loop of airport and railway station announcements… we are all in transit.

Both as a simple metaphor and as a work of art it is imaginative, effective and altogether moving.

Karuti also shows five drawings in ink and spray paint that reference the myth of slaves who leapt overboard from the ships and founded an underwater civilization, now lost. The series is called, There are worlds out there they never told you about.

In one sense that lost state represents the end of a migration and Piwi tackles the same subject with a group of chilling photographs of the Kakuma refugee camp on the Kenya-Ethiopia border.

He shows us the inhumanly regimented rows of tents and temporary compounds that already have a permanent look about them.

Of the people themselves, there are few to be seen, which is probably precisely the situation officialdom would prefer.

Longinos Nagilus shows two paintings featuring London landmarks, each dealing with the cruelty of borders. On one is written, We are humans, not aliens. It bears the ominous stamp, Entry Denied.

Sidney Mang’ong’o presents a group of six figures on cardboard, entitled Bantu River. Wrapped in a mesh of thin red lines, they echo the red tape that binds our daily lives.

Of Shabu Mwangi’s four paintings dealing with people trapped in transit, New Article is one of the highlights of this articulate and sensitive show.

He shows on the right of the composition, one woman beneath her own rain cloud while in the centre stands another shrouded in a toga of royal purple; the colour of imperial power and also, therefore, of oppression. The title suggests that injustice has become a normal part of our lives.

Perceptive and beautifully presented, this exhibition offers fresh insights into the plight of today’s lost millions.

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