Slaving over the hot easel, artists rally to a cause

Saturday August 6 2016

Untitled, by Magdi Adam Sulliman. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Untitled, by Magdi Adam Sulliman. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

Slavery is said to be the second biggest criminal business in the world after gun running, ranked by many as bigger even than the illegal drugs trade.

People trafficking is reported to affect 21 million victims worldwide each year, and apparently it is rife in Kenya. I know this because there is a current exhibition about slavery at the Shift Eye Gallery in Hurlingham, Nairobi, opened last week to coincide with the UN’s Day of Awareness about this melancholy subject.

People trafficking, a poster tells us, is commonplace but difficult to detect. Men, women and children are enslaved to become soldiers, domestic servants or prostitutes, to be forced into marriage, to have their organs taken or for ritual purposes.

In Kenya, it is mostly children who are affected, taken from school either to become household servants or child brides. Statistics are scarce but the NGO Walk Free Foundation estimates in its 2016 Global Slavery Index that there are around 188,000 of them.

Whether exhibitions like these will help to stamp out slavery remains to be seen but at least they are a start. The proceeds of sales, for example, will go toward helping Kenyans who have been rescued.

The show’s curator is Rose Jepkorir Kiptum, formerly of the Circle Art agency where she distinguished herself with a series of brilliant catalogues for their annual auctions.

Here she has distinguished herself with a clear and intelligent presentation of mostly articulate works.

The second annual Arts to End Slavery exhibition, subtitled Telling their Stories, is of 29 pictures, 10 photographs and three installations including videos, and Kiptum has set the whole show on the first floor above the ShiftEye and given it the space it needs to breathe. An exhibition, then, with a message; one with clear political intent.

The relationship between art and politics in East Africa has come under scrutiny recently in the international Press, notably in The Guardian and the Financial Times in the UK. Both published articles documenting how the region’s politics was being viewed through the prism of its artists. What neither article pointed out, because they were about the politics rather than reviews of particular works, was that in issue-based exhibitions the art tends to be sacrificed to the polemic.

There are of course notable exceptions but an open-call show, such as this one, tends to attract artists whose focus is on projecting the message rather than demonstrating their skills. Yet it is precisely in those works where the high level of artistry shines through where the subject is most clearly advanced.

One excellent example in Slaveryis the large collage by Onyis Martin, a young artist steadily building a reputation for incisive, beautifully presented mixed media pieces that offer refreshing insights on a range of topics including the migrant crisis and, here, child exploitation.

Set against a matrix of street posters including those from self-styled seers offering help with problems such as love, business and work, is the photograph of a young girl onto which has been pasted a long white dress of the sort you see children wearing to church. It could well be her wedding gown, in this case hinting at the girl’s marriage to poverty, the street and all its dangers and to a lifetime of oppression and abuse.

Taut, intelligent, deeply moving and for me the best piece in the entire show.

Then there is the spare collage by Lemek Tompoika that shows a child among press cuttings about divorce. It speaks of the vulnerability and pain of children whose lives are torn apart by their parents’ bitter divisions.

Mary Wangari Kinuthia offers an installation of flags bearing slogans, one of which reads, “Don’t ask children to take tools, instead send them to school,” while a joint installation by Samuel Githui and Lia Beharne is of covered bottles suspended from a frame against a backdrop of a video conversation about the fate of a man sold into slavery in Saudi Arabia.

Beharne, an Eritrean, lost family members when a migrant boat capsized off Lampedusa and each suspended bottle represents one drowned victim of the people smugglers.

Githui, an excellent draughtsman, also shows four cut-outs of figures in submissive postures trapped between sheets of glass.

Other good things include a haunting photograph by Rehema Baya of a salt worker whose lips have been mutilated and her eyes blindfolded; a photograph by the Ethiopian Mekbib Tadesse of a large cardboard box from which falls casually a human arm; and a drawing by Nadia Wanjiru Wamunyu provocatively titled Raped and Killed, and utilising a vibrant charcoal line that shows she paid close attention to lessons in life drawing by Patrick Mukabi.

Given a wall to itself by the exit door is an acrylic painting of women’s legs, the feet encased in brightly coloured high heel shoes.

The legs themselves are many shades of grey, perhaps a metaphor for masochism, through allusion to the novel, instead of the more literal yellow-yellow, brown, chocolate or blue-black.

This one borders on putting the polemic before the art but it is at an uncomplicated way of highlighting the manipulation of sex workers.

It is the image you take with you as you leave the exhibition. By Magdi Adam Sulliman, a Sudanese painter new to me, it lacks the skill and wit of, say, Michael Soi, but it is a telling way to end.