Eye-Pods: Seeds of creation

Sunday September 13 2009

Mandy Bonnell

INSPIRED BY THE SMALL THINGS in life, Mandy Bonnell makes a big statement with her minimalist drawings and prints.

For her, the wonders of Nature can be found in an insect, a small fish, a seashell or — as in her current exhibition — in a simple seed.

The pods of palms, neem, acacia and casuarinas, all found in Lamu and detailed with precision that would delight a botanist, are her subjects and she draws them with painstaking skill.

A single drawing can take her up to six months to complete and because she uses a high quality handmade paper, a mistake with her steely 3H pencil cannot be erased. She has to tear up her drawing, soothe herself with a cup of tea, and start all over again.

That has happened and will no doubt happen again, as Bonnell pores over her worktable, her pale eyes against a magnifying glass, making marks one millimetre at a time.

The end result, pared to the faintest of lines, is eventually made into books — handprinted limited editions of 15 — that sell for upwards of $2,000 each.
Bonnell says she likes the idea of art in books, slowly revealing itself, one page at a time.


Her show (at the RaMoMA in Nairobi’s Parklands until October 1) is one of the most extraordinary I have seen.

It consists of original drawings and a few prints made digitally from them. It is the prints — the smaller ones at least — that end up as pages of a book.

Bonnell looks at seeds rather as a clinician studies bacteria under a microscope — intently. The effect is strangely similar. You have probably seen enlargements of microbes on slides: Vibrating, zooming erratically around, zigzagging across the screen or doubling back on themselves.

In Bonnell’s case, each hair on every husk is minutely described and as the pods repeat themselves in patterns across the paper, the result is akin to a pathologist’s dream.

After peering at a few of them (and to get the best out of these pictures you need to have your nose about six inches from the wall) I became mesmerised and found myself thinking they might at any moment spin off the paper and dance their crazy way across the walls, rather as cells multiply.

There are very few works actually on show — only 14 in the two ground floor galleries — and none is framed. Each piece of white paper is held to the white wall with small bulldog clips, presenting them, appropriately, like specimens in a lab.

WHAT I SO ADMIRE about these drawings and prints, as well as their eerily compelling graphic quality, is the discipline and technical wizardry that went into them.

In a world where some people think it is enough to promote themselves as an artist to actually be one, it is refreshing to see such honest skills applied so rigorously.

As though to confirm the point — and to reinforce my own belief — Bonnell told me: “It’s all discipline. That’s what art is — 90 per cent slog and 10 per cent inspiration.”

Of course, the woman has form.

A student at the Royal College of Art in the heady punk days of the Seventies, Bonnell went on to teach at the same illustrious college and is now head of printmaking at the Bath Spa University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers.

With work in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK, the British Library and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the artist is the current recipient of the prestigious Albers Foundation residency in New Haven, Connecticut.

A formidable CV — and a suitably formidable show in Nairobi.

Pared down, spare, reduced to the absolute minimum in line and tone, these drawings and the one-off prints made from them especially for this exhibition, constitute a remarkable achievement.

Said Bonnell: “With these pictures I wanted to bring everything down to the essentials … the seeds, my eye, my hand.”

Something uplifting, inspiring and intelligent — even unexpected — that throws exciting new light on the commonplace: Surely this is what excellence in art is all about.

I found her work to be so quintessentially English that it almost hurt: Quirky, that obsessional care, the endless patience and rigorous self-discipline almost to the point of parody.

In a different age, I suspect Bonnell would have been Beatrix Potter meticulously drawing Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck by the light of an oil lamp, meantimes climbing mountains while wearing stout leather shoes and a thick tweed skirt.

NOW BONNELL CLIMBS A mountain of her own making — a perfectionist, she is content with nothing less.

From Nairobi, the show goes to the Yale Centre for British Art in Connecticut. Catch it here, while you can.

Elsewhere in RaMoMA it’s all change, with paintings by Salah Ammar, Simon Muriithi and Samuel Githui, and photographs by Chris Petch. I’ll review these in future editions.

Out on the streets, public art is big news. You cannot have missed the brouhaha about the Pride of Kenya – the 50 lifesize lions made of fibreglass and decorated by some of the country’s leading artists.

They are finally in position – planned to create awareness of the threat to Kenya’s most famous tourism attraction — and you can follow them from place to place across the city, making a wildlife safari of your own.

Ideally each plinth was to bear a notice stating the name of the artist and the sponsor. Sadly some of these are already missing (one in the Sarit, for instance) as indeed is one of the lions. An empty plinth outside the Westgate Centre suggests it has already been speared.

However, this is an excellent venture, and while everyone will have their own favourite, my eye has been taken by one lion covered in rubber from discarded flip-flops (outside Westgate) and another decorated by the Sudanese artist El Tayeb.

With its musculature delineated in simple black lines, it has the appearance of a page from Leonardo’s sketchbook, or maybe a medical textbook. Quite brilliant. You can find that one outside Dorman’s in the Sarit basement.

There’s a lion outside Nation Centre that has been painted to look like a peacock, and I have seen others bearing newsprint, one as rich as a gown by Versace, and several bearing scenes from the Mara. Beaded, gilded, decorated in every way you could imagine — and many you couldn’t — they are a magnificient addition to the City in the Sun.

Nearly as magnificent as the real things, now vanishing in a game park near you.

Maybe, just maybe, we could help to save them?

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