Former graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat streaked across the New York art scene in the 1980s like a shooting star. And like a shooting star he burnt out quickly, dying of a drug overdose aged only 27.
Yet in fewer than 10 years he had revolutionised modern art, enjoying the enthusiastic patronage of Andy Warhol and becoming a totem of urban chic. Collected by rock stars and other icons of youth, drugs, sex and everything, his rowdy canvases now sell for tens of millions of dollars.
They encapsulate the artist’s despair, anger, excitement — and amusement — at the world he confronted. And in the process, his hip commentaries have become beacons that guide other artists, as in their time were the works of, say, the Impressionists with their new understanding of light.
But therein lies the problem for followers of Basquiat. For while the Impressionists were so revolutionary that they outraged the art establishment and were refused exhibitions, they now epitomise the status quo.
Yet the distinctive pictures of Jean-Michel Basquiat are so edgy, raw and fresh that they still shock us — and his followers (and there are many) risk being accused of plagiarism instead of being praised for using his style as a springboard for their own investigations in the footsteps of this truly modern master.
Basquiat’s most enthusiastic follower in this region is Ehoodi Kichape, a Kenyan who reveals his influence in almost every painting.
And why not? What matters is not the influence but what the artist does with it. Does he or she cynically copy past masters, or use their example to speak with an authentic voice about the problems their own work confronts?
Artists rarely arrive with an intact, immaculate vision, as though descended from a spaceship untouched by human hand.
The best of them eventually achieve a unique expression that adds to our understanding of the strange world we inhabit. Yet inevitably, many artists, driven by identical impulses, or simply fashion, end up producing work that superficially is quite similar. (For example, I have difficulty telling the difference between the Neo-Impressionists Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro, most of the Dutch seascape painters, and the portraits of the 18th century English academicians Sir Joshua Reynolds and his renowned contemporary Thomas Gainsborough.)
Kichape (“The Beater”) finds in Basquiat inspiration for his paintings of urban angst. His knowledge of that falling star motivates him more, helps to focus his vision and invigorates his paintings.
You can see them currently at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi.
There, Kichape’s dealer Carol Lees is showing some 15 of his more recent pictures with a further dozen or so stacked on a table in the centre of the gallery. There are riches on both walls and table. The ferocity of Kichape’s pictures can take a casual viewer aback, yet there is also a beguiling hesitancy about some of them.
He paints, for instance, mostly on paper, which he then glues to canvas only when satisfied the picture is complete, finding that painting directly onto canvas is too daunting; a suggested permanence that is threatening in its finality.
There are the screaming skulls, protagonists in what the Victorian Samuel Smiles called “The Battle of Life”; the noisy lines that contain, restrain, a network of imagery based on the clutter of our cities — plus cars, matatus, cycles; cows, goats and the chickens that strut the slums.
And then there are the solutions we are so cynically offered by an instant-solutions society that has come adrift from its spiritual roots — scribbled references to drugs and doses (150mg) counterbalanced by healing herbs such as Aspen and Neem, plus irritations like tax codes (Tax No 34590) and notes and lists from everyday life that place Kichape, with his melding of images and texts, firmly among the Neo-Expressionists.
Interlaced strokes of oil sticks set against broad-brushed blocks of colours (bright, occasionally glaring; often violets and lemon yellows and pinks as well as a range of bloody reds) provide the matrix on which Kichape approaches his subjects.
The artist’s grasp of drawing can be seen in the deliberate distortions of some of his figures. It allows a vitality that would be lacking with a more formal methodology. Veterinary, Cow and Maribou Doctor on the walls are three excellent examples; Recovered and The Frog on the table are others.
Instead of underlining words for emphasis, Basquiat used to reverse the process by drawing a line above any word he wished to stress.
Kichape draws his lines often straight through the middle of a word. This includes his signature, in which he extends the middle line of the E in Ehoodi to strike through his entire name. Psychologists, amateur or professional, can take it from here.
As for me, like Victor Kiam, the man who liked his Remington shaver so much that he bought the company, I decided for once to put my money where my mouth is — and bought The Frog.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.