Are you Kenyan? Map your body and find out

Friday December 27 2013

Body maps: left, Sandeep Desai and right, Shabu Mwangi. Photos/Frank Whalley

When I am finally packed off, drooling and incontinent, to an old folks’ home, I shall find a world of entertainment awaiting me.

I shall be taught how to weave baskets, given lots of bright colours to paint with, and even, if I am lucky, clay to model into useless ornaments.

Art as therapy.

There is something about us that longs to make a mark. Throughout the world, more than 30,000 years ago, men, women and children sprayed paint through hollow reeds over their hands to stencil their prints onto the walls of caves.

One of the first things a toddler is given is a colouring book. We are all hot-wired to decorate ourselves and our surroundings.

And so, with 50 years of Independence to celebrate in Kenya, what better way to join in the fun than a spot of body mapping?


Step forward the indefatigable Xavier Verhoest with his large sheets of canvas and tubs of paint, some volunteers willing to expose their innermost thoughts to the world, and a list of cogent questions to help them explore their identities and relationships.

The volunteers (perhaps patients is a better word) lie on a canvas, are drawn life-size in outline and left to colour themselves in and decorate the canvas how they wish. Answering the questions helps them to uncover their true feelings about life, love and everything.

They make meaning through symbols, and develop a map that illustrates different aspects of their lives and illuminates the paths they have chosen. I am told they all feel better for doing it. The results are usually exhibited so they can comment on their own and everyone else’s maps.

This is a popular art-as-therapy for people with HIV/Aids, helping them to understand their situation and coming to terms with it.

It can be used too to explore feelings on almost any subject. It depends on the questions being answered.

To celebrate Kenya’s golden jubilee, Verhoest and the artist Wambui Kamiru set out to explore the identity of Kenya and its citizens under the title, Who I am, who we are?

They were aiming to take the temperature of the nation and to assess if there was such a thing as a common Kenyan identity.

They hoped too that the canvases and accompanying narratives, once exhibited, would become a mirror for public debate.

Cogent questions included: “Are you Kenyan?” “How similar are you to other Kenyans?” and, “What makes you proud about Kenya?”

Twelve of the colourful canvases that resulted are on show at the Kenya Cultural Centre opposite the Norfolk Hotel until January 20.

They are largely explosions of colour, with phrases, questions and dates scribbled across the figures.

Certainly it is therapy, but to what extent is it art?

It depends of course on who is doing it. One map by the well known young painter Shabu Mwangi strikes me as a beautifully controlled piece of artwork, the strong diagonal of the figure balanced by foot and handprints and pithy comments such as “Political conflict 2002”, “Sinai Fire” (he lives near the slum razed by a petroleum fire) and “Lost in Transition.” It is a work of grandeur that would grace anyone’s wall.

A few of the others are less successful as art, in that they appear to be hurried, clumsy and scruffy, although they are perhaps excellent as therapy. I am not in a position to know.

And yet another group, although not by artists, clearly show the painter/patient has a very good eye. The blue-grey figure with an outflung arm set against a boldly patterned background of vibrant orange, prussian blue and royal purple is one example of that. It is by the collector Sandeep Desai, and I have to say I have seen far less subtle colouring and much worse composition by some of the region’s professional artists.

To prove that point, visit the Banana Hill Art Centre’s holiday show Soko Tele (An overflowing market) and immerse yourself in the work of self-taught painters whose enthusiasm knows few bounds.

Yes, there are some stinkers there, but — and it is a very big “but” — there is some excellent work as well.

Typical is the joyous cornucopia of colour that is Andrew Kamondia’s Florist — her stall set in a woodland glade — and the wonderful inanity of Meek Gichugu’s surrealist A Book.

Lucki Muteri, who, like Gichugu, normally lives and works in France, offers a large oil called Promise Never to Hurt Her, a poignant handover scene with three figures, while sound paintings by Sebastian Kiare, Francis Kahuri and Rahab Shine delight the eye.

With prices ranging from Ksh500 ($6) for a small figure in a landscape by George Kimani, to Ksh750,000 ($8,850) for the huge Mind Your Own Business, by gallery owner Shine Tani, there’s something to suit most tastes and all pockets.

Peace, prosperity and happiness to you all!

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]