GALLERIES: Of popes, saints and a grand tradition...

Saturday January 20 2018

Pope Francis, by Antony Wanjohi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Pope Francis, by Antony Wanjohi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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It is difficult to imagine a more distinguished group of artists than those who have painted the Pope.

The first that comes to mind is Diego Velazquez with his iconic portrait of the embittered Innocent X, later adapted by Francis Bacon as the Screaming Pope studies that for some defined the power of 20th Century figurative painting — landmarks some put on a par with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Along the way Bacon also painted Pius XII being shouldered through St Peter’s Square on his gestatorial chair.

Before Velazquez came Raphael who painted his patrons Julius II and his successor the Medici Leo X, and the dissolute Caravaggio who took time off in 1621 from his drunken brawling to paint Paul V enthroned, of which the Velazquez that came just 45 years later was virtually a mirror image.

French master Jacques-Louis David painted a very humane portrait of Pius VII in 1805, notable for its humanity and accessibility; he made him look like that friendly priest just around the corner.

And now, bravely following their brushstrokes comes Antony Wanjohi, who has produced portraits of Pope Francis and his immediate predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, not from sittings amid the gilded grandeur of the Vatican but from photographs pinned to a wall in the somewhat humbler surroundings of a converted shipping container, his studio at the Kuona arts centre, near State House, Nairobi.

Both paintings are remarkable for their fidelity and for the touching humility of both men, admittedly captured by the unknown photographer rather that our artist himself; Francis with his winning smile, Benedict rather sterner with a piercing gaze but a little twist of the lips hinting at goodness and love.

The pair are part of a series of famous figures that includes Nelson Mandela, Chinua Achebe and Martin Luther King, as well as Saint Mother Teresa.

Working from photographs gives an artist several advantages. Problems of proportion and scale have already been sorted, the palette is decided if the artist wants to adhere closely to the photograph and the composition is already determined too.

In the cases of outstanding artists who use photographs (and Bacon was surely among them) they become reference points, no more, for the artists to interpret and develop.
As yet breaking no new ground, Wanjohi has yet to reach that stage and his portraits are assiduous copies of the photos before him.

More illustrative than painterly, they are nonetheless meticulously produced using repeated glazes of oil paints with a camel hair brush that mimics the appearance of the originals and, at their best, adds that richness and depth that only oils can give.

Chinua Achebe, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, by Antony Wanjohi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Chinua Achebe, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, by Antony Wanjohi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

They are excellent in execution and bode well for the development of this self-taught artist.

Wanjohi, now aged 31, was inspired to become a painter when, living in a gated community attached to St John’s Church, Pumwani, in Nairobi’s Eastlands, he watched a sign writer attempt a portrait of Jesus.

“My mother suggested I should learn from him, but I thought it could be done better so I began to study cartoonists like Gado, then at the Nation, and comic books such as Tintin,” Wanjohi said.

He moved from Pumwani to high school in Kitui where he joined the theatre group, painting backdrops for school plays to the plaudits of staff and classmates.

After leaving school, Wanjohi took a number of labouring jobs in the building industry, then became a petrol pump jockey.

He has been at the Kuona for about a year — one of the first to be attracted by its transition from the failing, financially struggling Kuona Trust to the thriving, financially struggling Kuona Artists’ Collective.

“I like the fact that as an artist working there I can have a say in our direction and in any developments,” he told me.

Primarily a painter, Wanjohi has lately taken an interest in printmaking and, thanks to technical mentoring by David Thuku, has produced silkscreen groups in six rather assertive colours.

Unlike popes and saints, the subjects of his latest prints are street vendors; the hustlers he knew from his Eastlands upbringing.

It is as though he is redressing the balance, lest we think he is obsessed by the high and mighty.

Now he is eager to find his own voice, not simply copy the works of others, no matter how adroitly he can reproduce popes and saints both secular and spiritual.
And that, in its way, is a blessing.