Wildlife caught in a traffic jam

Friday April 5 2013


I love paintings that are site specific… that tell of the time and place they were created and of the artist’s interests and thoughts.

They are windows to the mind and offer real insight into our lives. Often they speak to us of how our concerns chime with theirs. At best they give us a new reality and understanding of where, how and what we are.

Fitting that bill are some 25 pictures, mostly large acrylics, by Ugandan artist Jjuuko Hoods, on show at the exhibition titled Relax, at the Banana Hill Art Centre until April 12.

A realist by inclination with a willingness to experiment, his subjects are the streets of Kampala, wildlife and a few fantasy pictures reminiscent of the Symbolists, that late 19th century group of mystics, romantics, painters of dreams.

Hoods can handle paint and generally draws well. He is good, too, at conjuring up an atmosphere, whether of the dusty savannah, or the mad crowded streets of the city.

Let’s take the wildlife first. His three studies of zebras take you onto the plains to smell the grass as the animals rush past, kicking their heels in a panicky charge. Strong pictures, well executed with a confidence that speaks of long hours of practice.

Close inspection shows the necks and flanks of the zebras to be flecked with small marks of yellows, reds and blues, each at a guess one single dab with a flat brush. But why? Are they highlights? I think not. Perhaps they are just there to add a bit of interest, some lustre, to the inevitable black and white colour scheme.

But surely with the drawing so fundamentally sound, the stamping muscles so well described, that is not needed. So again, why?

Frankly, their significance escaped me and I suspect that with longer acquaintance they would become only an irritating distraction. And then separating the zebra studies, we have a canvas of two rhinos.

A strange painter is this Hoods. Whereas the zebras are alive before us, the rhinos look like inflatable podgy pigs with spikes on their noses. Hoods has completely missed the threat of their lurching power, not noticed the thick folds of skin that led early (Western) observers to think that rhinos wore armour, and even their colour is off — a sludgy chocolate instead of battleship grey with a cracked coating of dried mud.

Hoods returns to sparkling form with his painting Kingfisher, taken from a photograph, with the bird emerging from the water, droplets of water cascading from its feathers. Here the marks have both rhyme and reason.

His two buffalo are over-described, rather as though they had been posed under theatre spotlights (they even have a starlet’s sparkle in their eyes), while next to them his chimpanzee has the traditional soulful expression and sad eyes that live down to our expectations. To be fair, the texture of fur is notoriously difficult to get right. The Old Masters could do it, by the yard, as could Lucian Freud.

And so to the city.

Here Hoods is right at home with a feeling for chaos that comes from being stuck in matatu jams even worse than Nairobi’s. His vehicles pack the streets in a crazy jigsaw and at times it seems impossible to imagine how any of them will ever get going again.

Again, close observation, a sharp memory for telling details (like the petrol signs and branded umbrellas) and the technical skills to commit it all to canvas. I like his strong vertical formats — there are six of them here — which echo the streets of that hilly capital but I think the best of the cityscapes is the comparatively small Old Taxi Park, which engages all Hood’s concerns in one neat, skilfully painted package.

As mentioned above, Hoods is a strange artist… so I was not all that surprised to see that Yellow Bus is actually bright orange and the drawing of that is a little wonky too — all those straight lines and a curious vanishing point — but I guess that someone as good as Hoods is allowed a little slip up now and then.

Other city pictures are painted from a chalky palette, as though the artist is viewing the scenes through a creamy gauze. Perhaps that is due to the acrylic paint. It dries quickly and is therefore convenient, but it lacks the succulence — the truth — of oils softened by linseed and turpentine.

I do not know what to make of his Symbolist essays — three paintings of women with huge, melting eyes placed on grounds warmed by many shades of orange, the paint scored in fierce loops and lines. Mystical peeps into the soul they might be, but to me they look completely out of place and by someone else entirely. Gift shop stuff. They are vaguely pretty but seem to lack meaning. Pretty meaningless, in fact.

Those, and the rhinos, put Hoods, who is president of the Society of Uganda Contemporary Art and founder and director of the Gecko Gallery, in that odd bracket of artists who stop just short of being very good indeed.

There is an untidiness about some of his pictures that lets him down. They have been painted too quickly; rushed. He does however have obvious skills, an excellent eye and sympathy for his subjects. At his worst he is much better than many.

So let’s celebrate that and enjoy the show.

• Last week I referred to Don Quixote’s squire as Pancho. It should, of course, have been Sancho (Panza). My apologies to you and to wise servants everywhere.

Frank Whalley (or his servants) runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]