Shabu Mwangi is again proclaiming the plight of refugees — and in doing so revealing himself to be one of East Africa’s most exciting painters.
His is a continued obsession with statelessness, refugees and issues of identity.
For without doubt, Mwangi’s art is in the service of politics. It is a polemic in support of asylum seekers, a cry of anguish at the plight of our lost children, of people risking their lives and frequently forfeiting them in a desperate search for freedom and safety.
The most recent fruits of this obsession can be seen at the Circle Art Gallery in Lavington, Nairobi until October 20, where hang some 15 mixed media paintings with a further 12 portraits of the dispossessed in an annex carved from the main gallery.
Appropriately this show, called The Stateless, follows a fellowship in Germany, where Mwangi worked with many asylum seekers and began to record their stories, as sketches that later became these paintings.
Mwangi’s expressonist style is well suited to his asylum seekers. With faces and bodies vigorously brushed in, overdrawn, smeared and with sudden shifts of colour, they are becoming progressively symbolic of misery and despair.
Shoulders slumped, toes turned submissively inwards, some seem completely cowed by their experiences. Others, as in Yellow Zone, retain evidence of that rage against injustice that marks us as human. And others — see Child has a Shield — exploit a moral space to care more for others than for their own fate.
Mwangi, still only 32 and an artist for 14 years, has always offered his figures as symbols but they are now becoming less linear and increasingly painterly as they proclaim the desolation that confronts asylum seekers day and night.
They have become an even more potent visual metaphor for an entire underclass — hated, despised and feared simply because they seek a better life for themselves and their families.
When we see them on TV, we see them in crowds; struggling ashore in the Mediterranean having fled Africa to overcome one challenge only to face a thousand more, or in the case of the Rohingya Muslims being beaten into line by Bangladeshi soldiers, or as Somalis or Sudanese thronging the streets of Dadaab… crowds of them, their individuality lost among that of many.
But in The Stateless, Mwangi shows them to us in close up. And thus they become more human and much more our concern.
At The Circle they are before us, in our space, before our eyes and because of the disturbing soundscape (in collaboration with the composer Johannes Helberger) that runs throughout the show, in our ears as well — their shouts, their sobs and screams of mourning, the cries of officials and the wailing of sirens, the suck and roars of waves on the shore, all against the background mutterings of those seeking salvation.
Of the 27 paintings on show, a rough count revealed that as well as the 12 head and shoulder portraits, seven were of single figures, five were each of two figures while three showed compositions of three.
These are the people Mwangi met and whose stories he is now telling.
More even than in his previous exhibitions, Mwangi is boldly demarcating the spaces in which his figures operate.
Like Francis Bacon, he separates areas on the picture plane with changes of colour and boldly drawn lines.
But whereas Bacon enclosed his enthroned Popes in delicately drawn cubicles, Mwangi uses more intrusive horizontals and diagonals (and in one case, in Bus Stop, a searching crimson loop bisected by a vivid yellow horizontal) to delineate space.
His colours too obey a code with specific meanings.
Red and yellow for him indicate refugees from African countries, and as the Nairobi-based writer and curator Don Handa states in his enlightening catalogue conversation with the artist, red also suggests hope, and blood that is a constant across the racial divide.
Yellow shows a subject not belonging to a place, as in Homo Sacer II and Waiting Room. It is the colour used in refugee camps to designate asylum seekers from African countries.
With The Stateless, Shabu Mwangi has consolidated his position, long suspected, as one of the region’s most important artists; a quiet but insistent voice for the dispossessed and with all the formal qualities in place that have allowed him to create a lexicon that is at once both confident and persuasive.