Love is all you need

Saturday June 27 2009

Expecting by James Mbuthia

LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED Thing, as we learnt from the novel and classic movie of that name.

After all, as the Beatles sang, Love is All You Need.

Love has inspired great works — the greatest probably being the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his consort Mumtaz.

Nearer home and on a somewhat more mundane if equally emotional plane, it triggered in the Malindi artist Richard Onyango an obsessive desire to paint appropriately huge canvases commemorating his affair with that magnificently plump lady, the mountainous Susie Droze.

And more recently it resulted in an exhibition’s worth of paintings by James Mbuthia of Banana Hill, dedicated to his beloved second wife.

As I looked at these paintings — mostly oils with a few acrylics — I could almost feel Mbuthia’s heart beating as with each gentle brushstroke he chronicled his love for the lady who gives shape to his life and makes it worthwhile.


It’s a tender story, worth telling — the stuff of novels and, for that matter, classic movies too.

Mbuthia married his first wife, called Jane, in 1985 and they were blessed with four children.

But in 1999 Jane fell ill, faded fast, and died tragically young, aged just 31.

Mbuthia’s world caved in but somehow he struggled on, fortified by a humble religious acceptance of his fate, with his children his first priority.
Then his prayers were answered.

He met and fell deeply in love with the nursery teacher of his youngest child. By what some would say coincidence and what Mbuthia says was the hand of God, she too was called Jane.

They wed two years ago and this month celebrated the birth of their first born, a son whom they named Jeremiah.

Jeremiah, the prophet of doom? “Yes he was hated,” Mbuthia admitted, “but that is because he told the truth. No-one wants to hear it.”

And he went on: “It’s the way we’re living in Kenya now. When people here speak the truth they end up being hated.”

Examples? “Oh, see what happened to JM Kariuki — see how they murdered him because he shouted for the poor.”

A strong political conscience then, but also the cloak of religious mysticism hangs from Mbuthia’s shoulders, as it does for quite a few Kenyan artists …. Sane Wadu being another example.

Mbuthia worships at the Fountain of Hope Pentecostal Church in Kiambaa and readily admits that religious feelings imbue his work.

THIS TWIN DRIVE THAT I would summarise, perhaps rather tritely, as “Love of God, Love of Jane,” gives his paintings a value beyond the superficial application of paint to canvas.

They are about something that many of his viewers can relate to beyond the beauty of the work. They gain in power by echoing from deep within the wellspring of their own psyche.

The pictures — recently on show at the RaMoMA in Parklands, Nairobi — mostly described aspects of Mbuthia’s idealised life with Jane.

One, called Expecting, shows him apparently flying through the air towards her, offering a bouquet as she sits with her head tilted serenely and Madonna-like, heavily pregnant with Jeremiah.

Around her are the banana trees and hillocks of their rural home, dotted with huts, houses, and a simple church.

The paint stains the canvas like a blush, its soft pinks, blues and oranges giving a luminosity entirely in keeping with the gentle warmth of its subject.
All is still, an idyll, perhaps the life he dreamt of that has finally come to pass.

In other pictures the artist himself stands with Jane in a delicately coloured dreamscape of farmland, fish, birds, a cow. It’s called Dreams of a Youth.

Another shows the couple in a celebration of their married life. Called Family Property it shows on their farm, looking proudly at what they are creating together … the land, the sheep, the crops and their home.

Throughout they have that rather ingenuous Banana Hill trademark, shared by Cartoon Joseph and Peter Kibunja among others, of making the faces multicoloured masks, designed to show they are from no tribe but all tribes.

In the background of many of Mbuthia’s paintings is a mysterious and solitary figure, watching benignly over the couple.

IS IT, AS ONE MIGHT EXPECT, THE first wife Jane, supervising their new love from beyond? No it is not.

It is in fact a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, Mbuthia explained. “It’s the divine presence that keeps me going.”

As befits the creation of work that considers the soul, Mbuthia paints at night.

“It is quiet then and I can contemplate,” he said.

Self taught, he starts each painting with an open mind and a simple line in chalk or charcoal. Then he begins to apply the paint, seeing what images his strict code of colours suggest.

For him pink is heaven, death is grey, the colour of his dreams is blue, and the Holy Spirit is white.

“Each image drives me to the next,” he said.” It’s like a conversation between the colours and the images and there are sounds too — soft sounds with high notes….”

Now aged 50 and a lover of gospel music (particularly that of the American Don Moen), Mbuthia paints on through the night, setting down his dreams, conversing with his colours.

“I do what I do from my heart,” he told me. Then refreshingly he added, “I know it’s done when it makes me happy.”

If like me you enjoy tracing the influences on an artist, think of Marc Chagall for the romanticism, the colours and the flying figures, of Samuel Palmer for the luminosity and the rural idyll, and of William Blake for that strong streak of religious mysticism running through his work.

But think mostly of James Mbuthia. On this showing he’s creating a place for himself. For his god. And for Jane.

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