GALLERIES: A clash of cultures and the moral maze

Saturday November 2 2019

Royal Guard by Matt Kayem.

'Son of the Sun ll' by Matt Kayem. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

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You have seen the photograph—we all have. A Maasai in traditional shuka and carrying a spear is speaking on his cell phone.

Then there is the other one, which I think preceded it; a Maasai is sat outside his manyatta using a laptop.

It is worth pointing out here that East Africa was among the first with mobile banking and that the West, even now is still playing catch-up, but moving on...there are more subtle, less clunky ways of making a similar point about the collision, or seamless melding if you prefer, of European, American and African cultures.

Showing us one is the Ugandan painter Matt Kayem.

Based in Kampala his exhibition, Cool Afrika, is at the Kioko Mwitiki Gallery in Lavington, Nairobi until early December.

And if you want a snap assessment, the photographs verge on brilliant but the formal qualities shown in his well-intentioned paintings are modest.


One awkward little fact gets in the way of my praise for the photos, however: Kayem did not actually take them.

Most feature Kayem himself as the model while the shutter was clicked by one Saidi Stunner, a professional photographer with a studio in Kampala, here reduced to using his finger as though it were a timer.

The underlying ideas, the compositions, props, poses and the lighting were all Kayem’s work but the photographs themselves were taken by Stunner. In very sharp focus, I might add.

This of course raises the interesting question of, apart from legal and copyright issues, whose photographs they are.

If I had a great idea and paid, say Monet, to execute it for me, would it be my painting or his? Does the credit go to the person with the idea or the one who makes it happen?

In sculpture, installation art and in printmaking, technicians are often involved at some stage, casting from a mould, making the props or expertly reproducing the image.

As long as the artist generates the idea and supervises and approves the result as the director, I should think most of us would say that is fair enough.
But is a photograph subject to the same exemption?

Photography is widely recognised as an art form in which focus and exposure as well as composition were traditionally seen as part of the photographer’s skills.

Nowadays most cameras can make the technical decisions of focus and exposure for us, so if we no longer expect the photographer to make these choices, nor to do the printing, but simply to have the initial idea and arrange the composition, why not let someone else push the button too?

Now we are back with Stunner and his expert finger, or me and my mate Monet.

I am not a moral philosopher so I’ll leave it for you to decide how far this should go while still retaining authorship.

But whatever conclusion one might draw, one thing is clear; to stand in this echoing white painted hall hung with Kayem’s photos puts us in the presence of an imaginative, thoughtful and witty man.

There are seven of them in the main hall, all but one of Kayem in various heroic poses.

They reflect resistance to the wholesale assimilation of Western icons into traditional African culture, particularly Bugandan.

Thus in Son of the Sun ll we have Kayem in Jordan Air basketball boots while wearing barkcloth around his waist; on his head a jaunty baseball cap.

In Royal Guard, he again clings to tradition with a barkcloth tunic over faded blue jeans while he grasps a spear; a machete stuck in the ground.

'Royal Guard'  by Matt Kayem. PHOTO | FRANK
'Royal Guard' by Matt Kayem. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Kayem’s self-portraits are on point with the fashion for densely patterned backdrops, and strongly reminiscent of that 2013 series of portraits by the renowned Mozambican photographer Mario Macilau.

But for me, the finest photograph by far was not a portrait but a still life, a clever pastiche of 17th Century Dutch Realism, using notably African produce.

Instead of apples, oranges, a dead duck or pheasant and an earthenware flagon of wine, we are offered with a similar rich contrast of light and shade, a cut avocado, sugar cane, bananas and a bottle of South African plonk.

The artist must have been pleased with Stunner’s cunning finger-work too, because in discordant white crayon at bottom right it bears Kayem’s own sprawling signature.

I do not want to dwell on the paintings, some six of them, other than to note that many celebrate the artist’s heroes including Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Bob Marley and that when Kayem uses his own hand the results are less than spectacular.

His ideas still burst from the canvas (or in most cases, the Western stitched blue denim that serves) but the variable drawing distracts from and therefore weakens his message and his garish palette reminds me of a pizza.

Kayem is a great admirer of Jean-Michel Basquiat and it is a pity that this other hero of his has died.

He could have taken his ideas to him and asked him to knock a few out on his behalf.