A classic who puts premium on pattern

Saturday December 29 2018

Cartoon Joseph artwork

Left: Nursing the Child, 2006, and right: Unselfish African Mother, 2017, by Cartoon Joseph. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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He’s popular in Romania, big in Germany and treated like a rock star in South Korea.

He is also well liked in Macedonia, and was recently given a 12-month residency in the UK.

And at home in Kenya, two exhibitions at Nairobi’s Village Market saw him sell more than 40 paintings — success by any account.

This enviable artist is on official documents one Joseph Njuguna Kamau, but to you and me he’s that much loved institution, Cartoon Joseph.

One of the First Generation artists, born in 1976, he began his career with the Banana Hill Art Group of self-taught painters that evolved from the Ngecha Artists’ Association. In 2001, he gravitated to the now defunct Watatu Gallery and became a fixture on the East African art scene.

So high was his reputation that a detail from one of his earlier paintings, Rumours in the Kitchen, was used on the cover of the definitive book Contemporary African Art by Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, published in 1999.

To what does he owe his success?

It is, I believe, because his paintings, charming and detailed narratives of village life, resonated with Kenyans while at the same time they were exactly what visitors expected from an African artist — paintings that were colourful, quirky, essentially local and bursting with life.

That is how it started anyway and that, in spite of everything, is how it has stayed.

The everything it is in spite of is a slow but relentless shift of focus from a painterly exposition of the minutiae of village life with its home, church, pub, social hall and chief’s office, to life within the family.

Instead of the wider village and surrounding hills, there is now the strong African mother as the centre of all things. With it has come a change, more of emphasis than style, that it is easy to miss and even easier to ignore, unless you see the earlier works alongside the current offerings.

Curating Cartoon Joseph’s current exhibition at the Red Hill Art Gallery off the Limuru Road from Nairobi, Hellmuth Rossler, who is showing 18 paintings from 2006 to the present, notes: “His artworks have remained virtually unchanged over the years.”

I know exactly what he means. All it amounts to really is that the artist’s longstanding predilection for pattern has now taken over. His paintings, always strongly graphic, are now entirely so. But for me the effect is a shift from Cartoon Heavy to Cartoon Lite.

Buildings no longer sit four-square on hummocky hills; the skies, when there at all, are no longer painterly, and the birds that used to flap across them now perch quietly in corners living on as two-dimensional designs.

Along with a shift in the central subject from village to Mama, he has developed a dazzling preoccupation with the intricate patterns to be found, for instance, on khangas. And for some reason with fish of all sizes, with a meticulous rendition of their scales; symbols of sustenance that swim smiling into many a frame.

In one smallish painting called Faces, some 40cm by 40cm and completed this year, I counted around 30 different patterns in so many colours they nearly made my eyes spin in their sockets.

Nearby, much bigger and dated last year, was Unselfish African Mother, a composition almost overwhelmed by its vivid colours and intricate decoration. The narrative of a caring mother feeding her family before herself could be found, but only after adjusting to the visual noise and interpreting the symbols as tightly interwoven as a tapestry.

Next to it on the wall was Nursing the Child, from 2006, and the difference is clear. In that painting, which also has a mother as the central figure, the organisation of the colours and motifs — calabash, fish, mushrooms, a tree and rows of huts at the top and the bottom — is slightly simpler and more orderly. Yet the painting still has the richness of a quilt and there is plenty to excite the eye. What is missing is the frantic intensity of Unselfish and the paintings made this year.

What have remained constant are the faces, made of areas of different colours and representing the many tribes of Kenya that have melded into one nation.

Is earlier better or worse?

That of course is down to personal preference. Mine is for the earlier works because while colourful and packed with patterns, they are easier to read and the message comes through more strongly.

If your taste runs to deciphering a picture puzzle then the later ones are certainly great fun. You could look at them for hours and still find new things.

Either way, they are Kenyan classics… and with a choice of four from this year’s output at only $250 apiece, they are bargain buys with which to end the year.

So a happy — and prosperous — New Year to you all!