Tricks of the trade send you into transports of delight
- Technically brilliant, with meticulous attention to detail, these playful designs cheer us up.
A bit of fun this week… and with the Kenyan General Election campaigns pressing down upon us, don’t we all deserve it?
There were many things to admire about the late Kenyan politician John Michuki. Perhaps he will be best remembered for his time as transport minister when he got a grip on the matatu industry, introducing some (alas temporary) sanity to the roads.
But among the “Michuki Rules” that saw the introduction of designated routes, maximum seating, seat belts, speed governors and uniforms for drivers and touts, there was one with which I profoundly disagreed — the minister’s apparently bizarre insistence that all matatus should be painted white with a horizontal, broken yellow stripe.
At a stroke of a pen he destroyed an art form that had become admired, loved and respected throughout the world.
Kenya’s wildly painted matatus were a great attraction — photographed probably more than even the lions — and were a talking point for every tourist, as well as the locals.
They figured in literature, in picture books, in paintings, in photographic competitions and exhibitions, in movies and documentaries, even in museums… a terrific advertisement for the country and sure to raise our spirits on even the dampest of days.
They can still be seen in paintings (Denis Muraguri’s work springs to mind) and picture books, but without examples pepping up the roads it all seems a little flat, somehow.
I might have seen one the other day, on Ngong Road, Nairobi. If not a wish-fulfilling mirage, it was a small Nissan, black with a silver spider’s web painted across the body. I hope it was the first sighting of many, but I fear it may not be so.
So there you are… you want safe transport, you sacrifice the paintworks. Not sure why, but Michuki must have had a good reason. He was a determined man of great common sense and I bow to the memory of his wisdom.
It was with enormous pleasure that I recently came across some pictures of buses from other countries that had been painted with — if you can believe it — even greater imagination than Kenya’s matatus.
The pictures were sent to me by a friend who found them on the Internet and thought I would be interested. I am. I have reproduced a few of them here. Enjoy. Remember what was and maybe what could be again, one day. (See slideshow)
Unlike the more literal designs on Kenya’s matatus — generally decorated with portraits of politicians, pop stars, football teams and their stars, with the spider’s web mentioned above being an exception — these buses all feature excellent examples of trompe l’oeil, a style that creates optical illusions to swop one reality for another.
In Kenya, the matatus were richly decorated vehicles for dry Kenyan wit (a portrait of Monica Lewinsky with the slogan Bill’s Gal) but they remained mini-buses albeit vibrant and often startling ones.
But here the painters have transformed the bodies of the buses into other things.
Thus, one seems to be having the breath squeezed out of it by a giant python; another apparently runs on the battery pack in the rear; and a third appears to be keeling over under the weight of a passenger glimpsed through the rear (painted) window.
Others show the bellows between compartments turned into an accordion; an airport bus is about to take off; a huge hand descends to grip the roof of a traditional red London bus; and in one, a wheel arch has become a camera.
Trompe l’oeil — it means (‘deceive the eye’) — has a long history. Roman murals from Pompeii show doorways which suggest much larger rooms beyond.
In Ancient Greece, tables bearing bowls of grapes and curtains draping false windows were popular effects.
In the Renaissance, some artists amused their patrons by painting, for example, a fly on the picture frame, blurring the boundaries between image and reality.
More recently, the artist Pierre-Marie Rudelle created a trompe l’oeil cabinet containing family photographs on a wall of Jackie Kennedy’s dressing room in the White House.
These playful designs fool our senses and extend our imagination while altering perceptions and offering new insights and possibilities.
They are not great art in the sense that they do not attempt any investigation of the human condition, the battle of life, nor do they examine the personality and will of the artist. But they are technically brilliant, with meticulous attention to detail sustained over large areas, show quirky imagination and like an amuse bouche, delight the (artistic) palette.
More to the point, they are fun and cheer us up. What is there not to like?
Be that as it may, I am supposed to review regional art exhibitions, not images from the Internet. Which is a pity because the Net has its attractions: Leonardo — 7 out of 10, there’s something wrong with that woman’s smile; Picasso 6 — good use of colour but the eyes should be side by side, not on top of each other and there should be only one nose; Warhol 4 — surely Marilyn’s face was never green. (Or perhaps 9 — maybe it was).
Next week normal service will be resumed, written under Michuki Rules… a limited number of passengers in my laptop, all wearing seat belts, and the speed of writing strictly governed.
Now, it is time to catch a boring white matatu home.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts, media and matatu consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]