GALLERIES: A master of misery gives hint of hope

Friday February 14 2020

Untitled by Samuel Githinji. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


Where some artists use their paintbrush like a rapier, Samuel Githinji prefers the axe.

Subtle he is not.

His targets are politicians who cause human misery and lay the environment to waste through greed. He attacks them with a visceral energy.

The result is like walking into a butcher’s shop — and that is on a good day.

When particularly incensed his paintings take you straight into the abattoir and those for his current exhibition must have been made on some very bad days indeed.

Only 10 of them line the walls of the Red Hill Art Gallery, off the road from Nairobi to Limuru, but they are more than enough.


All but one show full length figures, heads hunched to their chests and sometimes wearing a crown of thorns, symbolic of sacrifice on the road to salvation. While some appear to be blind and mute others show rows of jagged teeth opened in a roar of outrage.

To effect his attack, Githinji has evolved a technique of painting with acrylics, oils and melted wax, outlining his figures in pastels. He scratches images into the wax — echoing the harm done to them — and sometimes tears the canvas or paper, to symbolise, he says, hatred and violence. In some the ripped matrix is stitched back together to signify hope.

Horizontal lines, usually red, imprison the image and speak of the sufferings of people who have morphed into beasts, while slogans scribbled across the surface are another neo-expressionist touch.

Githinji’s use of numbers on seven of the paintings — the highest was 493 — turn out to be his inventory … the number of works he has made in this series, including drawings and preliminary sketches.

Suiting the subject his palette is darkly brooding; blood red, black and a deep blue, the colours of nightmares.

All large, at around 150 by 120cm, the paintings are inescapable in an exhibition that takes us on a journey from despair, through misery towards a hint of hope.

While the first assumption must be that people who have become like animals are the victims of society’s ills — graft, greed, inequity, and social and political injustices — a closer look reveals that among them are those who have caused this pain. They too are howling and they too are offered the possibility of redemption.

The artist is telling us that the politicos are victims of their avarice and corruption.

Near the entrance the first paintings show figures in despair. The first, its mouth not drawn, is dumb to protest — or hanging its head in shame — while the next roar with rage. One shows three people clinging together for strength.

The exception to the figure paintings is a bold cityscape, painted with the same technique and with the same blood-soaked palette on two sheets of hammered tin.

Before it is an installation that speaks of a city laid to waste.

Small boxes piled on top of each other represent housing and office blocks prone to collapse while between them lies a twisted log which tells of the death of our environment.

Barbed wire surrounds the city. But is this to warn the wise to stay away, or is it to keep the residents trapped inside?

The next three paintings show figures standing amid mushrooms (change that can come overnight) and poppies with a dual take on Remembrance — never forget those who have suffered but in this case remember too the crimes committed.

In the final work, Githinji’s most violent painting, his themes combine on a rough plank door. Handfuls of rusted nails have been driven into the head of a single figure, exacting revenge; the paint is slashed on with an urgency that mirrors the agony of injustice but again, at the base there is a moment of calm, a softening of rhetoric with a flickering of poppies.

Curiously, although it is clear from the paintings that Githinji blames politicians for the people’s plight — even clearer from the brief catalogue notes — nowhere does the artist seem to accept that the people themselves might be partly responsible for their fate; or would he then be blaming the victims for the crime?

Yet surely it is the people who with hope and in good faith voted the politicians into power.

Or is Githinji saying the system is so loaded that no matter who wins the result is the same? That power corrupts and little can be done?

If so, he is showing us a dystopian society in which even the ballot box is powerless to protect us.

It is clear from this exhibition that the artist believes we are indeed peering into the abattoir, even as mushrooms spring up overnight outside its walls and poppies wave in the wind.

Seen together these paintings are overpowering; the point made so forcefully that Githinji runs the risk of destroying his argument through an overkill.

But singly they would add vitality and stiffen the spine of any collection.