A witty show with something to say

Saturday July 7 2012

Kativoi Mwene, by Michael Soi. Photo/Frank Whalley

Kativoi Mwene, by Michael Soi. Photo/Frank Whalley 

By FRANK WHALLEY

Sex makes a fool of any man. And if you have ever wondered what goes on in the city after dark, two Kenyan artists are here to show you.

Michael Soi and Thom Ogonga — friends who share a studio — are holding a joint exhibition called The Gentleman’s Club.

As recorders of the demi-monde they follow such masters as Toulouse Lautrec and Walter Sickert. But whereas those two worked within the European mainstream, both Soi and Ogonga with their heavy outlines and strong colours owe a debt to the Pop Art movement of the Sixties.

They offer an interesting contrast in styles: Soi being the more direct and Ogonga the more painterly.

In Soi’s pictures women are abused and mauled by the men while passively retaining control, while Ogonga shows women as the rather bored objects of male desire.

The faux innocence of women in Soi’s paintings is vital to an understanding of his work. The men are the state — seen as the fat cats, the politicians and police — while the women are the wananchi (citizen).

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Yes, the state is abusing wananchi through harassment and institutionalised corruption, yet it is the wananchi who have the vote.

And as one former president found out, they can use it and hurl mud at those, no matter how high, whom they reject.

So the girls’ wide eyes have been opened, like our’s, not by surprise but by the slow realisation of where the power really lies.

The Nap Squad shows one of the continent’s best known clubs, the African Union, at work with all the delegates snoozing peacefully in their chairs. Libya is represented by an empty seat.

Hagga Smatta, which translates from Sheng as Nice Bum, shows exactly that… a woman with a very big hagga indeed bending provocatively while playing pool.

One man stands by the table, his cue erect — a visual pun that confirms who is really in charge. Classicists would remind us of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata for a more precise example of women’s power.

If anyone thinks Soi has adopted his colouring-book simplifications to disguise a lack of drawing skills, they should think again; particularly after viewing Kativoi Mwene, a painting of the Ukambani singer, dreadlocked and playing his guitar. See his drummer, wrists cocked while he gazes away from his kit, lost in the rhythm.

These are deceptive, subtle works.

Soi has 25 paintings at the One-Off in Rosslyn, Nairobi, until July 25, compared with Ogonga’s 13 — and the interest never flags.

Ogonga’s clubbers sit comfortably within their angular outlines. At first it seems an affectation, like Soi’s reliance on bare breasts and monstrous haggas, but it is a tribute to these artists that five minutes into the show all seemed perfectly normal, to the extent that I was surprised to find other visitors were fully clothed with normal sized haggas and did not have black lines around their bodies.

Whereas Soi describes bottles by sticking original labels to the painting, Ogonga models glass with the enthusiasm that other artists reserve for the life class.

In most of his pictures the men are possessive, the girls either wary or bored. An example is Untitled VII, in which a man stares down his date’s cleavage while she twiddles her hair.

Of course, I am unfamiliar with night clubs and spend my evenings either in prayer or quietly reading books on poultry management.

Nonetheless, I can recognise that this is an excellent exhibition combining elegant, witty presentations with insight and something new to say.

And on that very topic… no sooner had I filled a page last week with my opinions about the decorative paintings of Patrick Kinuthia, which I argued showed excellent technical ability but told us little, than I find up the hill from the One-Off, at the Banana Hill gallery, a full retrospective of Kinuthia’s work. It is on for one more week.

Eat my hat? No. I stand by my view but seeing more than 35 of his pictures together did give me some pause for thought.

Most of them seem to be reworkings of his own previous paintings while demonstrating a pyrotechnic facility.

Hadassah’s Prayer, which I reviewed last week, was there as was one particularly well painted portrait of a young woman with downcast eyes and modestly bowed head.

Dashed off with loose brushwork and a confident use of colour to define the form, it would have hung comfortably alongside some of the works of Fitsum Behre, whom I always think of as East Africa’s most assured portrait painter.

And then alas I saw the title, Contemplation, which summed up my problem with Kinuthia’s work. It is as though some meaning has been forced onto the picture, dragging it down into cloying sentimentality.

There was one painting free of this. Called Lamu Landscape, it had been left on the floor propped up against an easel, presumably because the gallery was uncertain what to make of it.

The brush strokes were even broader than usual, the composition more open. With its succulent slabs of colour it spoke of love of the act of painting — the feel of the brush swooshing through the clotted pigment — and it also told me something of the place, the salty smack of the sea.

Thankfully, there was not a dhow in sight. This picture excited me, enriching my knowledge of the Coast as well as giving me a somewhat esoteric pleasure in the painting’s economy and control.

I sense that this time Kinuthia was painting for himself and not to satisfy any imagined public demand. We should have more of it.

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