ART: African bodies on show in all their glory

Friday July 03 2020

Kenyan painter Alan Kioko has been using the current restrictions due to Covid-19 to evaluate his strengths and weakness, and experiment with new works.

Known for portraiture, Kioko has in recent weeks painted semi-nude male figures in a series called Ndethe (slang for naked). They are his interpretation of African human anatomy. Some of the notable portraits are painted in shades of brown, with disproportionately small heads that emphasise the men’s brawny torsos, muscular arms or paunchy bellies.

Kioko is adept at showing emotions or caricature-like looks. But he also portrays subtle moods, like in a recent side portrait of a heavy-set, shirtless man on a wine-red background. Much of the man’s face is deeply shadowed yet his face reveals intensity or displeasure, emphasised by the hand-on-the-hip pose.

In the painting Sijali Juakali is a man on a bright blue backdrop with his head tilted up. There is tension in the furrowed forehead, chiselled cheeks and neck muscles, which speak of the gritty reality facing small-scale artisans in the informal sector. Kioko signs his artwork with the pseudonym "Think" because he wants people to look beyond the aesthetic.

Non-skin colours make Kioko’s subjects more dramatic and I like how he over-emphasises African features like full lips, broad noses and prominent cheek bones. Fingers can be tricky to draw, but Kioko is able to paint well-proportioned hands as well as joints, nails and skin folds captured in detail even on the most muscular figures.