How two of a kind see where we stand

Saturday December 30 2017

Fighting Bulls, by Peterson Kamwathi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


For me this year is ending on a high, with two of my favourite artists included in a mixed show at one of my favourite galleries.

The artists are Peterson Kamwathi and Beatrice Wanjiku — so no surprises there — and the gallery is at Red Hill off the road from Nairobi to Limuru.

Filled with light and with all works sensitively hung, what is there not to like about the Red Hill Art Gallery of collectors Erica Musch and Hellmuth Rossler?

This time they are presenting a dip into the past with key works by Kamwathi and Wanjiku complemented by 14 other pieces by artists also of high quality; an early group of dancers by Justus Kyalo, a Sebastian Kiarie notable for its prescience, a Paul Onditi painting, five drawings by Gor Soudan and three by Martin Onys.

To put the hat on it, there are also three carvings by Samwel Wanjau, one of Kenya’s most popular sculptors.

Kamwathi and Wanjiku make an interesting pairing.


Kamwathi brings an acute intelligence to his work, which radiates across many facets of our society and a wide range of media — sculpture, drawing and print-making with painting, video and installations thrown in.

He uses animals (cattle for the state and sheep for wananchi) and human figures grounded, floating through space or leaping and flying to interrogate conflict, governance, protest, the environment and migration among other concerns.

It has gained him international recognition, with work in the British Museum and the World Bank collection, among other prestigious places.

Accolades for Wanjiku, in addition to appearances like Kamwathi at the Venice Biennale, include being voted top artist at the 1:54 art fair in New York, last year.

Whereas Kamwathi examines our activities as evidence of development, or the lack of it, Wanjiku peers straight into our souls to uncover Shakespeare’s “politic worm” of corruption and decay, which she translates through the prism of our daily struggle.

Thus we have the screaming heads, the drooling beasts that devour themselves in torment, and people wounded by experience locked in the straitjackets of cultural expectations.

Both artists examine our place — and predicament — in society. But where Kamwathi’s works assess external indicators and are wide-ranging, elegant and oblique, Wanjiku’s are intensely internal, narrowly focused, visceral and driven by the power of her imagination and force of expression.

What both artists also share are excellent formal skills, taught, developed and honed through practice.

At Red Hill, each has two works in Eclectic, an exhibition on until the middle of next month.

Kamwathi’s Fighting Bulls dominates one wall. Made in 2007 as the artist was beginning his rise to prominence, it is a large (144cm v 152cm) view of two bulls going head to head in a ring surrounded by spectators.

A sign states Kura (ballot), making the turf war a metaphor for elections, the process of the poll being seen as a contest and at times a vicious one.

Created from 272 squares of canvas, each 8cm by 8cm and meticulously printed as monotypes, the oil-based inks give this piece of East African art history a rich, enduring glow.

Facing the bulls is a charcoal and graphite drawing from Kamwathi’s Monument to a Vessel series, first shown at the Frost Museum in Miami and then in South Africa and Germany.

It is one of three life size cutout figures of protesters, their backs to the viewer, who are holding placards aloft. In situ many of these figures, were clustered on a bare wall, meaning visitors, standing behind the demonstrators, became part of the protest.

Two early paintings by Wanjiku are being offered from her Immortality series from 2009-2011. Each is a single torso bearing stuck down x-rays, postage stamps, envelopes and other ephemera.

The figures stand against single colour backgrounds on which the artist has stencilled letters and numbers, and scribbled short messages. They signify that we live on through the memories of those we leave behind.

Adding to the quality of this exhibition is a painting from 2005 by the First Generation artist Sebastian Kiarie, one of the first to pick up on the looming migration crisis. It is a pattern of footprints, referencing steps in the Sahara of migrants heading north.

Also concerned with migration is Martin Onys whose three watercolours of monochrome figures, accented by coloured copies of passport pages, are displayed on a table top, while the five drawings by Gor Soudan are from his Imprints group in which the artist used steel plates, tree bark and the patterns of carved Lamu doors to suggest the traces of our being.

Then there is the painting by Paul Onditi featuring Smokey, his Everyman, standing before a landscape ruined by industrial exploitation.

To end on a high, in addition to three typical sculptures by Samwel Wanjau (two of fantasy birds in volcanic tuff and one wood carving of a reclining woman smoking a cigarette) is a 1996 painting by Justus Kyalo, a semi abstract of interlocked dancers that vibrates with life.

This landmark piece is particularly interesting in that it was made before Kyalo gave himself fully to reductivism and in the process became the region’s finest abstract painter.

A very happy and prosperous New Year to you all!