An artist in denial serves the church

Saturday October 15 2016

The preliminary drawing for Denial VI (left) with the plaster cast (centre) and the finished glass panel (right). PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

The preliminary drawing for Denial VI (left) with the plaster cast (centre) and the finished glass panel (right). PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

Best known for her charcoal drawings of hens and cockerels, Florence Wangui has changed direction in the service of the Church.

In so doing, she follows a tradition dating back almost 2,000 years, with countless paintings and sculptures about the life of Christ — Nativities, Virgins, Annunciations, Crucifixions, Descents and Ascensions.

And now Denials.

For Wangui, whose latest exhibition is called simply Denial has spent the past three years working at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho where she has been helping to produce a series of glass plaques on that theme as part of her Stations of the Cross, and also bronze panels to decorate the cathedral doors.

Thus Wangui treads in the famous footsteps of the Florentine Lorenzo Ghiberti who in the early 1400s decorated the great bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery, called by Michelangelo the Gates of Paradise.

Artists who have served the Church closer to home and of our time include Elimo Njau, now running the Paa Ya Paa Gallery in Nairobi, who won fame if not fortune for his five tempera paintings at the Anglican Cathedral in Murang’a, showing the Life of Christ.

And so the torch passes to Wangui, who made an immediate impact when still a student of Patrick Mukabi at the GoDown art centre in Nairobi, with her marvellously fluent drawings of poultry, which she studied for long hours in her mother’s hen house.

Their veracity combined with a pulsating energy and deft line made them sure-fire sellers wherever shown… first at the GoDown and latterly across the city at the One-Off at Rosslyn.

A taste of Wangui’s labours in Kericho can be enjoyed there for a further 10 days in an exhibition that can be assessed on at least two levels — as an example of the process of creating art, through preliminary drawings, bas reliefs in plaster, and then, cast from them, the glass panels for the Stations of the Cross.

And it can be enjoyed too as an exhibition by a young artist who is daring to try something new; at times succeeding quite gloriously; at others just missing the mark.
As a selling exhibition, it has its drawbacks.

I should think the market for plaster reliefs is limited; Wangui’s preliminary drawings of the human figure are awkward compared with her chickens; and the glass panels, while glowing as light shines through them, are all suffused with little bubbles that indicate either a failure in the quality of the kiln, or a technique yet to be mastered.

I remain puzzled by the received wisdom of her images of Christ.

Wangui seems to have been shoehorned into producing a stereotypical Western image of Jesus — long hair, roman nose, beard — that may please the clients but leaves me wondering why she did not find a living model to realise Him. This traditional rendition has handcuffed her attempts to make Him live in our presence. Wangui’s Christ is aged around 60, while history teaches us He was crucified at 33.

Did the brief demand a recognisable icon for the faithful to accept and worship? If so, that is a pity and an opportunity lost.

However, what does succeed does so brilliantly and Wangui is to be warmly congratulated for having the courage to leave her comfort zone and get stuck into something different.

Of the 13 plaster reliefs, five charcoal sketches, one finished drawing and 12 glass panels in this exhibition, it is the plaster panels that take the eye. They are from the Denial series that gives the show its title.

Finest by far are Denial V and Denial XI; plaques that commemorate St Peter’s refusal three times to admit he knew Christ.

This appears in all four Gospels. St Matthew’s version is: “And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him: ‘Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Matt.26:75):

In both these Denial reliefs Wangui describes the musculature of St Peter’s naked body with tenderness and authority. The lifelike realisation of the cockerel in Denial V is a given. Wangui, we know, excels at this.

There is also a spirited Eucharist among the panels which while boldly attempted lacks the marmoreal quality of the single figures. It also sets Wangui that most difficult challenge of giving faces expression when sculpted in miniature. The slightest touch can change everything and here the result is rather like those souvenir pottery reliefs you can buy at shrines.

But if you love the Renaissance, trust me, you will admire the ambition of these plaques.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts consultancy based in Nairobi.