Thirty paintings and drawings, 10 artists and just one subject.
But what a subject — the nude.
They say if you can draw the nude you can draw anything and for sure it is one of the oldest — probably the oldest — subjects known to art.
The earliest examples are figures of hunters on the walls of caves and, of course, those carvings of women, of which the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf is probably the best known example.
Whether she was made to represent a mother goddess or fertility fetish or carved by some cave-dwelling wag and passed around the camp fire for a giggle, like a prehistoric Playboy, no one really knows. But there she is to this day, just 11cm high and with her fabulous breasts, stupendous buttocks and a modestly inclined head many a man’s ideal of womanhood.
Throughout history most nudes have been of women. There are exceptions of course — the hunter figures and Michelangelo’s David being the most obvious and most stunning — but generally speaking you think of a nude and a woman springs to mind.
But for many, no nudes is good news.
The National Museums of Kenya seems to be among them with its recent ban on paintings that proved to be a touch too controversial for a show about controversial art that its own curators solicited.
The not nervous band
Never mind. Carol Lees at the One Off Gallery in Nairobi is not among that nervous band and is currently exhibiting a selection of nudes that incudes some of the very paintings banned by the museum.
So let’s start with them.
Two large works by Patrick Mukabi set the pace; one of a standing nude, grinning somewhat fixedly into the middle distance; the other of the same girl on her back with her head nearest the viewer and one leg languidly raised.
Mukabi handles weight rather well and with their neutral blue under-drawing and the impasto of the flesh tones, this is a hefty woman who many would relish and perhaps just as many might fear. The point is that she is real. Not airbrushed, not with her proportions sleekly adjusted to suit the composition like The Valpincon Bather by Ingres, but a woman of the Lucien Freud school of realism… one who could easily knock you across the room.
Then in the stables annex is the Michael Soi that so horrified museum curators; big and bold and obvious.
The painting shows a group of girls and a clergyman whose head is raised towards the heavens, eyes closed in piety, as with a free hand he tweaks the bottom of a naked lady pressed against him.
Well yes, a bit strong you might think. Couldn’t possibly allow this obviously false suggestion of clerical impropriety, could we? Then we remember that the Assemblies of God defrocked TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart following his tearful admission, after being caught with a prostitute, “I have sinned against You, my Lord.”
And of the other nudes on show?
I thought the best by a country mile was the spare drawing called The Night, by Timothy Brooke, with its echoes of Matisse in its simplicity and pinpoint accuracy. The weight of hair, turn of the waist, hollow curve of the back; all defined by a fine ink line, tense as a spring.
Other drawings by Brooke also catch the eye; the two seated figures in chalks that flank The Night and, in the annex, a coloured drawing of another reclining nude (again a back view) plus a superbly loose sketch of yet another seated woman, vigorously drawn in graphite.
Nearby are three small oil studies of nudes by Olivia Pendergast. Only 18cm x 13cm, yet each offered more power than any of her large (150cm by 100cm) paintings in the main gallery, with their tiny heads perched on slabs of torso; a mannerism gone mad, although it has to be said a beautifully painted mannerism none the less. If you admire the sensitive fluidity of Pendergast’s painting check out her landscapes in the upstairs gallery…. all the skill without the wild exaggeration.
Of course not only women have bodies, as Michelangelo knew. And to prove it are two works by Mercy Kagia; a clever watercolour of a rather unlikely man (is that bit really him, or a standpipe in the background?), plus a magisterial study in conte of a seated man, in which structural arcs drawn across his eyes, shoulders and thigh create a three-part rhythm working contrapuntally against the fierce verticals of the stool and his own extended leg.
If this drawing were a musical score it would be Beethoven’s Fifth. Hum the start of it and you’ll see what I mean.
Then there are Ehoodi Kichapi’s three visceral women roaring on the wall, and Nadia Kisseleva’s paintings so like the German Expressionists they are almost parodies.
The art school competence of Ginny Fraser is there to be admired as are the Peter Beard-ish photograph of a woman with a cheetah by Anthony Russell with its painted border and the dense, emerging figures of newcomer Talal Cockar.
Thirty paintings and drawings, 10 artists, just one subject — and hardly a dud among them.