A break with the past that comes at a cost

Saturday January 6 2018

Pig Eaters, by Sebastian Kiarie. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Pig Eaters, by Sebastian Kiarie. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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Best known for his paintings of plump characters curled up on the canvas in various shades of caramel, cream, biscuit and beige, Sebastian Kiarie is among the younger members of Kenya’s First Generation artists — those who found a home at the now defunct Watatu gallery, and whose work was targeted primarily at moneyed tourists and NGO staffers on short term contracts.

They wanted something to take home that reminded them of their sojourn in this colourful continent.

And self-taught Kiarie, based in the artist’s village of Ngecha, a few kilometres outside Nairobi, was there to oblige with warm memories of men young and old sleepy with chang'aa, of lovers gazing at each other with heavy lidded eyes, of dutiful priests presiding over weddings, of market mamas and, generally, of a gentle stroll around the backwaters of local life.

In short, happy stories to hang on the wall that, like snapshots in the family album, were souvenirs of a lovely time that said, “Wish you were still here.”

Soft, gentle, inoffensive and really rather sweet, they were the signature works of an artist who clearly loved life, had a wry sense of humour and who created a parallel altogether safer world where poverty seemed bearable and a happy chaos was controlled.

But not any more.

For at the age of 46 — a man in his prime — Kiarie has found his teeth.

A raft of what he calls “social, political and cultural realities” are all under attack in his current exhibition, while the artist also illuminates our refusal to take responsibility for our actions and how we become prisoners of our own past.

Of the 29 paintings on show at the Banana Hill Art Gallery (until January 12) more than half represent a furious and barely controlled attack both on his primary targets including electoral fraud, financial greed and state oppression, and, by implication, on his own artistic past.

These are large paintings too; at 196cm by 161cm they are very much in your face.

A few examples: The destructive effects of electoral fraud are realised in Addicted, which shows a man, trousers round his ankles, seated and masturbating against a ballot box; a rather obvious image all the more surprising coming from a painter whose social comment has usually been firmly on the comfortable side of the line.

Financial greed and hypocrisy are condemned in Pig Eaters, in which three men in top hats prepare to devour a pig’s head, placed on a plate before them. The men are gangsters, we are told, attempting to look holy in their spotless white suits and the pig’s head will be eaten raw and with the hands. It is, the artist says, more delicious that way.

This painting, Kiarie tells us, is of humanity demeaned by a drive for self-preservation, and it references people rewarded with high positions in society thanks to taxpayers’ money. The pig’s head, I assume, represents the people on whom high-placed people feast.

These paintings are part of a series Kiarie calls Not My Fault in which he examines how our identities affect our relationships and how people refuse to take responsibility for their actions, and instead “blame their predicaments on circumstances as well as on other people.”

The Saint shows a man surrounded by religious symbols, which represent his imagined goodness yet are also symbols of his past life from which he unable to free himself.

Again, authority’s indifference to the plight of wananchi, whom it is supposed to serve, is shown in a painting of a shackled prisoner screaming while his jailer, a policeman, stands impassively by.

These new paintings reflect their uncompromising subject matter through a more strident palette, slashing brushwork and in many cases, a deliberate rawness that leaves viewers used to Kiarie’s more traditional works wide-eyed with surprise.

If you’re a fan of the Expressionists, think of the Belgian James Ensor and the violence of his parade and circus paintings. The other half of Kiarie’s show contains works on a similar theme of protest — the whole amounts to a howl against the society the artist believes we have become — yet, with their colouring and dozy, smiling faces painted with more precision and even love, are more familiar to those who know this artist well.

The backgrounds of these smaller works are left unfinished, throwing the focus onto the faces, on the people, leaving the surroundings less important than was usual.

Oddly enough all these faces, male and female, seem to be of the same person. They too then are symbols — perhaps quotations from the artist’s own past works and a history from which he too is unable to free himself.

“My artwork,” states Kiarie, “is an invitation to the viewer to unmask and consider the possibility of an exchange between my perspectives and their own.”

I admire Kiarie for being open to argument — and for the fact that he decided not to apply the same qualitative care to these new paintings that he did to his previous work, presumably in the belief that their rowdy energy will add to the force of his proposition.

But abandoning the commercial niceties is likely to come at a cost.

It will take a strong willed collector to accept this artist’s break with his cosy convention enough to want one on the wall.