The heroism of fragmented lives

Friday May 29 2015

Propped on a stool..., a certain elegance, and, in our space. Paintings by El Tayeb. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY

You can draw with almost anything.

Pencil, graphite sticks, charcoal, a matchstick dipped in ink, a brush, a pen, a quill, pastels, crayons, paint… I’ll run out of words before you run out of ideas. Each medium has its own strengths; each its own limitations.

You can draw on almost anything too. A cave wall, papyrus, paper, wood — keep going; is there anything so versatile? — and as well as taking that line for a walk on whatever comes to hand, you can scratch, gouge and score it into the surface too.

The artist El Tayeb Dawal Bait does a bit of both. His lines — searching, always energetic — go on, through and beneath the surface.

The result can be seen in his current exhibition as work of extraordinary confidence that stands as a metaphor for the disintegration of our spirit.

He cannot mean it, surely.


I know El Tayeb to be a man of sunny disposition, unfailingly cheerful and with a generous sense of humour; an outgoing man, never cruel.

Even his name speaks of joy. With five older sisters and him the family’s first boy, it translates roughly as, “The blessed one who brings light to the house.”

So what is going on at this show, called Resurrection, Facial Fragments, at the Red Hill Gallery, off the road to Limuru until June 21?

It is of 27 paintings, 18 of acrylics on roughly fashioned boards and nine of mixed media on paper. All are untitled.

To see the art is to know the man. Clearly there are depths to El Tayeb that belie the charm.

He has form of course. While an art student in Khartoum, he was suspended for alleged political activism and took a year out before returning to class. A man of some moral force, then.

And indeed El Tayeb deplores the violence he sees in the world, particularly in his Sudanese homeland, and to some extent this informs his work. But true to himself, he sees beauty too and his vision of the broken core of the human mind is presented with delicacy and grace.

The heads that feature in nearly all his paintings, heroic in their solidity, exemplify the Nubian belief (and that of many other cultures too, it has to be said) that it is the face above all that reflects a personality and state of mind, is a mirror for a person’s thoughts.

With their low brows, heavy noses and pursed lips they are a composite of many people he has known, including his own father and himself and their hieratic quality references classic Nubian sculpture of leaders; princes celebrated in monumental statues. There is perhaps something of us there too. For like Thersites we see ourselves reflected in another’s eyes.

These heads survey us from the walls; up front and judgmental, superficially aloof, locked blindly within themselves, yet pugnaciously ready for an argument.

What gives them this vigour? Each is defined by a fine mesh of lines either painted on, or more often gouged into, the weathered paint of old doors, box lids, cupboards, windows and other bits of architectural salvage.

To achieve this effect, which gives the formal structure of the heads an almost kinetic energy, the artist uses different tools including a range of sharpened metal rods of varying thicknesses, and almost anything else that comes conveniently to hand.

The paint is frequently stripped back from the picture surface, revealing the pieces’ histories through their many layers and with that, some account of the people who lived in the houses from which they were taken.

Occasionally the heads or fragments of them (the nose, for instance) stand proud of the surface on their own roughly sawn bits of wood, intruding from the picture plane into the onlookers’ space, thus changing from being objects to be viewed to becoming a physical part of our lives too.

Similarly the edges of the pictures — perhaps constructions is a better word — are disrupted, their uneven shapes indicating that they are more than tidy rectangles to be seen on the wall.

It cannot be a coincidence that several, with their awkward angles, are propped up on old boxes and trunks and in one case on a paint-spattered stool. They are among us, a part of our immediate environment.

Thus the entire exhibition becomes more than 27 pictures; only nine of them on conventional paper and neatly framed. It is a walk-through installation that reflects our lives.

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