East Africa, flowing with milk and sticky with honey … lands people flee to and not from.
South Sudanese, Somalis, Ethiopians, Congolese … they come in search of succour and find it here.
In spite of all the corruption, claims of dodgy elections and occasional outbreaks of mass murder, here are safe havens where people can prosper, bask in the sun, put down roots, and where the corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye etc etc etc.
All the more interesting, then, that so many of our artists find the harrowing journeying of migrants so fascinating.
Perhaps it is a case of, “There but for the grace of God go I,” or just a natural sympathy for those worse off than themselves; the contrast between the migrants and their own comparative stability.
Perhaps too it was brought home in Kenya, for example, by the misery of the 650,000 citizens who became refugees in their own country following the post-election violence of 2007. Whatever the reasons, the subject continues to excite artists and inspire their work.
So pay attention and take a lesson while you look.
Examples to hand include paintings and drawings by three of the six artists currently showing at the Red Hill Art Gallery, some 30 kilometres west of Nairobi off the road to Limuru.
The exhibition called Artists’ Selection presents until mid-October the work of Samuel Githinji, Onys Martin and Churchill Ongere — all of whom number migration among their concerns — plus Justus Kyalo, Gor Soudan and David Thuku.
Githinji’s bold presence is headed by a large wall hanging — 2.2 metres high by 2 metres wide — that remains untitled, so no clues there.
Executed on sugar sacks, it reveals a central figure wearing a stylised crown of thorns, flanked by two others; the eyes of all three obscured by a heavy blood-red bar. The colour of suffering is also in the background and on the loin cloth of the central figure. The composition, the colours and the crown reference the Crucifixion, yet all three figures are standing with their shoulders slumped and arms dangling.
Surely this is an icon of suffering for our inaction, even as we watch migrants being plucked from their capsizing boats, crawling up unwelcoming beaches and stabbing each other in hostile camps.
The theme is echoed in two single figures by Githinji, their eyes also concealed, on the adjoining wall.
Onys Martin, an unfailingly interesting artist, presents nine largish (75cm by 55cm) mixed media drawings on paper that interrogate aspects of the anguish felt by millions of displaced people trekking from Africa and the Middle and Far East across frontiers in search of peace.
His figures, in black ink, wash, stand, walk and in one case collapse in despair against a background enlivened by photocopies of passports and visas. The fact that they are all excellent life drawings helps to make this statement even more powerful.
Theory of space
Martin is also showing a group of four pen and ink drawings on small sketchbook pages under the general title of Theory of Space.
They show single figures, each partly obscured by finely drawn netting, and work on two levels — firstly as the experiments of an artist playing with the placement of his subject on the picture plane, and secondly as a metaphor for reality, represented by the figures, being promoted or obscured by events, the netting.
Churchill Ongere offers three drawings from his recent exhibition Suspensions in which everyday objects including chairs and open boxes symbolise uncertainty, chaos and violence — the refugees’ predicament.
The boxes are portals of possibilities; anything could come out of them. In white ink, they sashay on a background of other objects (gravel and leaves, for instance) laid on the paper and then spray painted, revealing the imprint of their ghostly presence.
Adding lustre to this excellent show are Kyalo, Soudan and Thuku.
Two abstracts by Justus Kyalo hung on the outside walls of the gallery have the artist continuing his preoccupation with pouring acid onto iron sheets and developing the stain. In one, the acid patterns the sheet without elaboration, while in the other, the marks of its bite are enhanced with oil and acrylic paints in shimmering blues and delicate touches of umber, offset by white.
Wholly abstract, they nonetheless conjured up for me visions of the landscape near Kyalo’s studio in Kitengela.
Four paintings by Soudan are from his Bubbles & Shells series, completed while he was moving between Nairobi, Freetown in Sierra Leone and Tokyo, and are said to explore the social and cultural differences in these cities.
And then we have Thuku’s two mixed media works, seen previously in his exhibition Bar code, in which he assembled layers of cut-out paper to consider our shopping habits and the pursuit of happiness through endless purchasing.
And all the artworks are, of course, for sale…