It takes a brave man to experiment with his livelihood in the glare of the public spotlight.
But Samuel Githui is nothing if not courageous.
In a startling departure from his usual figurative style, he showed a group of 15 abstract and semi-abstract paintings some two years ago at the Kuona Trust in Nairobi.
Then, he described his new work as a leap into the unknown and declared that like a skydiver he had strapped on a parachute and was hoping for the best.
Well, the eagle has now landed… but unfortunately on its head.
Githui is currently showing nine of his latest paintings at the Red Hill Art Gallery, off the road to Limuru.
In these he has eased back a little from the purely non-figurative and his new work is billed Surrealism.
It comes in a bewildering succession of large and cluttered canvases, up to 210cm by 145cm.
A note states he wants to “elaborate the relationship and interaction of different media” and “discover optional ways and possibilities to communicate and express myself”.
Fine...but could he please tell us what it is he is trying to communicate, because these paintings tell us either little, or so much that it is difficult to hear the message for the noise?
Githui’s palette is uninspiring, too. Beige, brown, biscuit, caramel and cream, with a touch of green on one, violet on another, do not excite the eye.
Surrealism is the exposition of the subconscious and the palette remains in that sense incidental.
But with works like these the artist needs all the help he can get to interest his audience, and Githui’s current penchant for drab, unstructured canvases and greasy, slithery paint really does not help.
A brighter, more cheerful appearance might win over a few viewers and make the paintings enjoyable for their own sake, at the least as decorations. Oh dear. Githui is such a good artist that this exhibition has come as a shock.
Clearly he is showing us something, but I know not what...other than the inside of his mind, and that seems to be both unfocused and in turmoil all at the same time.
Not a place I want to be.
The compositions are confusing, too, possibly as a result of the artist’s stated aim which was, “to let the medium dictate the cause (sic) of action taking the lead on a directive and executive role of creating the work”.
What that means in practice is to make a mark and let that suggest another, then another and so on until the painting is complete.
I have heard artists say that is how they work when creating abstract paintings, and there is a certain logic to that—at least in exploring the power of gestural mark-making.
But Surrealism (if that really is the aim here) is a representation of the freedoms of dreams, which almost counter-intuitively demands discipline.
Making a few brushstrokes and hoping that elaborating on them will provide a fruitful outcome really does not cut it.
Surely, the artist is supposed to be in control of the process, not the other way round?
It is a bit like getting your dog to take you for a walk then wondering why you end up scratched to pieces, deep in the bushes.
Githui’s compositions appear in most cases to lack any structural under-pinning with the result that recognisable images—a bird here, a hand or a face there, a few pairs of eyes, shadowy groups of people, tumbling figures, even a donkey and a pyramid of light—emerge and recede on the picture plane.
I ended up feeling the imagery was interchangeable and that if you looked long enough you would see whatever you expected, or wanted, to see, rather like faces dancing in the fire.
None of the works has a title; not a killer blow but not much help there for a viewer, either.
What is upsetting is that Githui is such a good artist; whether figurative or creating dynamic and telling installations or videos.
From him we have come to expect works made with elegance and style.
His stunning exhibition of 400 life drawings of a dancing man, made in chalks on brown paper and massed on the walls of the Circle Art Gallery in July last year, for example, was a tour de force.
These predated his Kuona Trust experiment by some three years—although shown after it—and they provided great hopes for his future. I was not the only one eagerly awaiting Githui’s next show.
Now it is here. And I suspect I am not the only one to be a disappointed, either.
It is always good—essential really—for an artist to try something new.
But it is also good to recognise when your parachute has failed to open and that a painful crash landing awaits.