A taste of the blues in landscapes of the mind

Thursday August 14 2014

Lionheart. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Lionheart. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY  

By FRANK WHALLEY

Fine dining, low lighting, the murmur of informed conversation with logs chuckling merrily in the grate… yes, it’s the good life as experienced in Karen, that expensive enclave of Nairobi.

And what could be a better accompaniment to an evening of discreet charm than a collection of paintings spot lit on the restaurant walls, exciting polite comment, perhaps soothing tired minds.

Let us welcome then an exhibition of some 30 pictures by the artist and critic Zihan Kassam. It is called Elysian Fields and can be seen at the Talisman until next weekend.

The chef there was recently voted the best in Kenya and I was told without a hint of shame that he had been “poached” from some hotel or other.

The paintings however deserve to be more than a backdrop to your lunch date or an evening out replete with appalling puns. They reward careful examination.

In a variety of media including clothing dye, acrylics and charcoal on hessian, vinyl, plywood and canvas, they invite the expectation of a wide range of approaches to her subject, which is superficially at least, landscape. That expectation would be dashed. In fact most of the paintings look remarkably similar, large or small… limited if you dislike them; consistent if you are a fan.

These are landscapes but of the mind — interior landscapes if you will — and given that it is one artist with one mind the similarities can be both predicted and welcomed. Many of the works are monochrome, mostly blue, and tend towards a loose abstraction.

Happily, within their genre, which has been overshadowed mightily forever by the more literal masterpieces of Picasso’s Blue Period, they do offer the viewer something to hang on to… suggestions of woodlands, lakes and fields. It was Walter Sickert, I think, who remarked that an Englishman likes a tune he can whistle, and generally speaking I do run true to type.

In one blushing scene — rosy, not blue for once — a white animal of some kind (possibly a sheep, maybe a horse) makes a ghostly appearance offering depth and adding a sense of mystery.

These paintings show the artist moving from the more formal, structural approach of her last exhibition, which was of bicycles as metaphors for man’s progress — physical, spiritual — within the city, to a looser, more oblique approach. Kassam offers hints and suggestions with elements that shift and coalesce to create new insights.

The titles too are allusive. In pride of place over the fireplace is Lionheart, a reference to the song King and Lionheart by Icelandic folk group Of Monsters and Men, which made it big last year by the geysers and frozen waterfalls; even in the US too. Lyrics include the lines: “Howling ghosts they reappear In mountains that are stacked with fear…” Enough to get anyone’s artistic juices flowing.

Next to it hangs the smaller, coherent Murmurs, evocative perhaps of wind whispering through a stand of trees on the riverbank. Within Kassam’s canvases recline a thousand possibilities. It makes whistling a problem but compensates by offering the chance to investigate her world in an adventure that may prove richer and certainly last longer than the delights on your plate.

Delights abound elsewhere too. For in Kampala, city of hills, the inaugural biennial arts festival is underway. It will last for the whole of this month and is intended to be a pan-African showcase of contemporary art, “to expose, educate and create debate about the value of art in society.”

With the theme “Progressive Africa,” it is being held in three main venues — the Nommo gallery, the national museum and Makerere University.

Other galleries supporting the event with exhibitions to attract festival-goers include Afriart at Kamwokya, where the somewhat sentimental realism of Edison Mugalu is supported by the latest work of gallery director Daudi Karungi, plus that of Ibrahim Nsubuga and Ngula Yusuf.

The festival includes panel discussions on the relationship between art, culture and tourism, as well as a fringe show of large works by the internationally known sculptor Lilian Nabulime.

Held at the Makerere, where she teaches, the exhibition is built around an exploration of wood as a medium for sculpture and in particular the expressive nature of tree roots.

Central to the biennale is the exhibition of 100 artworks including paintings and photographs, by 45 artists from 13 African countries. Artists taking part from this region include: Ronex Ahimbisibwe, Paul Ndema, Eria Nsubuga Sane, Ronald Kerango, Henk Jonker and Wasswa Donald from Uganda; Jan van Esch from Tanzania; and Samuel Githui, Justus Kyalo, Yassir Ali, Brian Omolo and Michael Soi from Kenya.

The works are centred on the artists’ vision of Africa’s place in the global village — the fight against poverty, for health, improving education, the role of investment and the value or otherwise of increased urbanisation.

These are real and vital issues that affect all our futures and the debate is on right now. Visitors are invited to join the discussion, questioning African political, social and economic practices

As I argued a few weeks ago, art is about thinking… and here we have a festival that projects art as a catalyst for driving social and political change. Long may it continue.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.