6 artists in search of a city re-viewed

Saturday June 4 2016

Mrs Were, by Osborne Macharia. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Mrs Were, by Osborne Macharia. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY  

By Frank Whalley

It is good to take a fresh look at life from time to time. New insights, reappraisals, love of a person or place reborn.

And that is the subject of an exhibition called Re-viewed — the hyphen makes the point — in which six artists were invited to look anew at Nairobi, the city they call home; at its icons and at its people, but avoiding the cliché skyline with its saucer atop the Kenyatta International Convention Centre tower.

Stools by the established sculptor Gakunja Kaigwa dot the floors of The Art Space, off the city’s Riverside Drive (first seen at the the previous exhibition), but for me the stars of the show are Osborne Macharia’s photographs from his series The Extravagant League of Kenyan Grannies in each of which an elderly lady is dressed as a man with a vintage aeroplane in the background.

The grannies have just landed and are on their way to somewhere important, with their leather bags; a conference or a decisive business meeting perhaps. Mrs Were totes a cigar, Mrs Adhiambo wears power braces, Mrs Njuguna stares confidently back at the viewer, a flower in her buttonhole. Now who does that remind you of?

The storyboard is that these grannies, actors on the city stage, were corporate and government leaders in the 1970s, now retired and living life to the full. Still wheeling and dealing by the look of it.

The photographs are unexpected, funny, confrontational and unmissable. But you will have to be quick, for the show ends on June 6.

There is humour aplenty in Denis Muraguri’s presentation of another city feature — the street theatre of an energetic matatu tout, last seen as part of a light box installation at the Kuona Arts Centre in the city.

A large collage by Muraguri includes the artist Cyrus Kabiru wearing, not his C-Stunner spectacles for once, but an ordinary pair of sunglasses, waving in front of a matatu.

Another delight is the group of Pop Art paintings by Aron Boruya, still a student but fast finding his place in the regional art scene. His classic treatment of trademarks as art —Coca Cola, Securex, PesaPap — is clever, but far from new.

Andy Warhol beat Boruya to it by more than 50 years with his prints of Coca Cola bottles, Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans; the commonplace as social totem.

Warhol and his many assistants laboured with old fashioned screen printing; it was the best they had in those days. Boruya is up to the minute, wielding a digital camera to produce his polarised images, then as old fashioned as the Stone Age, using paint to colour them in.

The end result is less Warhol and more like a Banksy graffito with its pared down, bleached out photo style but on canvas instead of a wall.

(And if signage is your thing, a few years ago Kenyan Peterson Kamwathi produced a far more precise symbol of Nairobi life — an LED notice: ‘This plot is not for sale.’)

Boruya’s show stopper Era of Structure develops the theme of city totems, placing workmen next to an increasingly common Nairobi sight, a water tanker bearing the legend Clean Water and a contact telephone number.

Of course I had to ring the number (well you would, wouldn’t you) and was overjoyed to discover that Boruya had innocently copied the real number of the firm that delivers water in that bowser.

It made me so happy that I nearly ordered a few litres on the spot, but unfortunately the man who answered my call sounded a bit grumpy and hung up.

Upstairs, Anne Mwiti offers six paintings about women in society, Urban Woman and so on, this time in a wildly Expressionist manner — slashes of paint with heavy impasto, collaged snippets from newspapers and magazines, even a sliced canvas stitched back together.

Her styles change so quickly that it is hard to keep up… faux Egon Schiele, bright and spindly children’s art, now this.

Each style has a quality you would expect from this lecturer in fine arts, but I do feel greater consistency would add authority.

And so with a thud we arrive in front of two paintings, on the staircase landing, by Philip Kere.

His jumble of bold swirls on plum backgrounds betray his time as a mural painter. They say something about a city where graffiti abounds but scaled down to easel size they lose impact. Oddly enough they would have had more power at postcard size as studies for a big, bold mural.

There are precedents for graffiti artists becoming major painters (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Harding and Banksy being prime examples) but few do and Kere may be doomed to remain among the many.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts consultancy based in Nairobi.