GALLERIES: A speedy journey in town and country

Saturday September 21 2019

Jo roho by Coster Ojwang’

'Jo roho' by Coster Ojwang’. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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Painting is a journey...and never so true as in the case of Coster Ojwang’.

And not only a physical journey—his regular trips between his studio in Dagoretti, Nairobi and his up-country home in Kisumu account for that—but in his continuing development as an artist too.

“There are so many subjects to see on that trip that I will never exhaust them,” he told me.

Already making a name for himself as a landscape painter, with tea farms a particular love; he is now exploring the urban landscape too.

It is a subject he has touched on before, in shows at the Polka Dot gallery in Karen and one at the Norfolk Hotel a couple of years ago, but in his current exhibition townscapes are in the majority.

Of the 35 paintings currently on show at the Banana Hill Art Gallery (until October 3) 22 record the urban bustle while just 13 are of his more familiar tea farms, hillsides and dams.


What he demonstrates in canvas after canvas is his growing ability to capture the solidity of landscape and variable quality of light as it strikes the city streets.

He did not have to to journey far, however, for one of his best urban scenes in the Banana Hill show.

He found it in the sprawling settlement of Kawangware, where he saw a group of worshippers in white gowns marching through the slum.

His painting, called Jo roho, (Dholuo for “People of the Holy Spirit”; the name of their church) captures rather well the brownish-yellow light of sunshine filtered through clouds of dust rising from the murram road.

This painting, underpinned by sensitive drawing, demonstrates Ojwang’s increasing confidence in handling paint, and his determination to capture light. No surprise then that he describes his work as Impressionist.

Ojwang’ completed all the paintings in this exhibition using fast drying acrylics on canvas in just three months, which is a fairly rapid work rate by any standard. On occasions, the results suggest that a little more time spent on fewer paintings could have been a sounder proposition.

One example of this is a view of Ndakaini Dam at Murang’a, in which his eagerness to harmonise his colours led him to echo the blue of the water reflecting the sky with a few dabs of cerulean in the foreground trees.

His instinct for harmony was understandable, but the echo flattened the image and made the trees look as if they were cutouts floating in the dam rather than standing tall before it.

'Nanga Beach' by Coster Ojwang’. PHOTO | FRANK
'Nanga Beach' by Coster Ojwang’. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Interesting to note in passing that the artist is now introducing more people into his paintings than previously, with groups appearing in Night Walkers, a couple of beach scenes and, as you would expect, in most of the cityscapes.

Several of his atmospheric street scenes are of Kisumu, a good one being Aga Khan Road, with its men peering beneath the bonnet of a truck.

And although the streets, markets and slums are proving a big attraction as a new subject to explore in depth, Ojwang’ has certainly not forgotten his roots as a landscape painter with a sensitivity to volume and light.

His view of tea farms captures their fertility while Nanga Beach, with its group of women washing clothes, is a delightful cameo.

The rich palette and accurate recession in Two Windmills pays tribute to Kenya’s lush landscape while obliquely noting how progress is intruding on tradition.

Travelling between Nairobi and Kisumu, the artist was suddenly struck by the scenery around Lelechwet, in the Rift.

He jumped from the bus and spent a few hours wandering around the area, camera in hand—a sojourn that produced two fine scenes; homage to an area he had not previously noticed.

Past exhibitions have shown us an artist searching for the structure of landscape with every brushstroke, experimenting with colour and struggling to project the feel and smell of the earth.

Ojwang’ is an artist in transition, eagerly developing his range both of subject and, with a more vigorous and broad-brushed attack, his technique.

Here, his enthusiasm for new subject matter has produced an exhibition of documents—sketches and studies as much as finished paintings—as though the excitement of discovery has made him rush to record all he saw, relying on the skills he has already amassed to see him through.

The clouds in several of his landscapes, for example, are interchangeable, scudding across the sky as though he had dipped into a bag of special effects to finish that painting and move on to the next.

Perhaps I am being unfair in this supposition and that scudding clouds are a feature of views from the Nairobi-Kisumu highway.

I hope so anyway, because I think Ojwang’ has great potential and I would hate to think of him being seduced into speed painting on auto-pilot.

Hopefully a more reflective but still-searching look at town and country will be the next stage in this artist’s journey.