An incisive artist with unique style

Saturday February 13 2016

Left. My Other Life was a Warthog; centre, The Chief; and right, Wide, by Ngene Mwaura. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Left. My Other Life was a Warthog; centre, The Chief; and right, Wide, by Ngene Mwaura. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY  

By Frank Whalley

East African artists sell well abroad. Recent art fairs and auctions are evidence of that.

But there is another strand to the region’s art that is equally powerful, and that is the presence of several internationally acclaimed artists within the diaspora.

Prominent among them are Wangechi Mutu, until recently based in New York, while in and around London are the studio potter Magdalene Odundo and the performance artist and sculptor Arlene Wandera.

Now there is someone else to add to the list… a growing talent and one to note.

He is Ngene Mwaura, based in California and already earning a reputation as an incisive artist with a unique style.

He has enjoyed success after starting out around 2000 with the first of a series of major projects, Bike Art Africa, that saw him cycling around Kenya and Tanzania creating art on the way.

Since then he has taken part in 23 group exhibitions and nine solo shows in the US, mostly in California at Santa Monica, Pasadena and Los Angeles.

In between he has illustrated books, painted bikes, created the sleeve of a jazz album and executed murals.

With a record like that it is no surprise to find Mwaura has form. He once shared a studio with Peterson Kamwathi and Thom Ogonga at the Kuona Trust when it was based at the National Museums of Kenya. They studied printmaking together.

Traces of those days remain embedded in Mwaura’s current work, which although mostly mixed media on board, retains echoes of the refined lines we associate with etching.

The “mixed media” turns out to be acrylic paint and black marker pen and can be seen in an exhibition of 18 of his more recent paintings at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi, until February 23.

Entitled Black Angels have Red Wings, these works spring from the sense of loss he felt over his mother’s death.

Solace came through painting and, he makes it clear, the companionship and support of a woman called Nadia, who receives recognition in the painting A Love Story, of which Mwaura comments, “The story this painting tells is about being open to receive love and acknowledging the beauty that comes with tragedy.”

It is unusual in that a majority of the larger works are strongly vertical, typical of which is the humorously self-denigrating My Other Life was a Warthog.

Two of the smaller works appealed to me; one called Wide which was of a fantasy head in crimson with bright blue accents and another head, The Chief, reminiscent of the gold burial mask of Tutankhamun.

At times I was reminded too of drawings I once saw by schizophrenic patients; the similar echoing lines, tense contours piled against each other until the paper almost seemed to vibrate, similar detailed hatchings and the wildly staring eyes and distorted faces seen in some of Mwaura’s work.

There are hints in the networks of tiny marks balanced by intense colour of the nervous energy found in the paintings of Paul Klee, the 20th century Swiss-German artist who fused Surrealism, Expressionism and Cubism to produce paintings that danced on the wall.

Klee, a renowned colour theorist, forged his own path, working alone and in spite of his accumulations of “isms” produced paintings and etchings of a unique style. He took what he wanted from many schools and bent them to his will.

Like Klee, Mwaura loves colour, using a brilliant palette in which crimson, ultramarine and a beguiling yellow predominate.

He controls his compositions with a subtle hand, the backgrounds often rough monochrome washes from which his figures leap out at you, fully realised and with lives of their own.

This is a sophisticated painter whose busy works tease and tempt the eye.

They deserve attention and command respect.

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