GALLERIES: When an essay in ink turns into a poem…

The subject is our daily life; the humdrum made special through the artist’s eye.

Sweet bananas, by Mercy Kagia. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 


  • Holding her first solo exhibition in Kenya, illustrator Mercy Kagia’s quick sketches record her response to daily life and the objects she sees… but it is her life drawings in conte crayon that really catch the eye.


An abandoned taxi lies rusting in a field; a classic Beetle looks in excellent shape with an indicator showing amber; a bunch of sweet bananas sits fat and ripe on a white cloth; and meanwhile a mama mboga waits for customers by her ramshackle kiosk with a few leaves of spinach painted green… welcome to the world of illustrator Mercy Kagia.

Working mainly in pen and ink, Kagia has a sharp eye for key details and a willingness to strip out anything extraneous leaving the focus entirely on her subject.

And that subject is our daily life; the humdrum made special through her artist’s eye.

Drawing with a clear line that stays sharp beneath a watercolour wash, Kagia is now holding her first solo show in her Kenyan homeland.

With around 40 works on the walls and six of her sketchbooks in a display case, it is on at the Polka Dot gallery in Karen, Nairobi, until March 14, and reveals that Kagia has achieved a level of professionalism that is a benchmark for anyone taking up art as a career.

Her line is precise, her outlook sympathetic and her illustrations while economical remain welcoming, making you wish you were there seeing what she sees, feeling the same sun on your back.

To make her drawings, Kagia uses Indian ink and an old-fashioned dip pen with interchangeable steel nibs, preferring its adaptability to more modern tools like the popular Rotring art pen.

In many of her drawings, small touches of colour highlight telling details that sum up the whole — those leaves of spinach for example; or the flash of blue on a water tanker — making elaboration unnecessary; the mind filling the gap that the eye had left.

When Kagia brings a full palette to her paper, the results vary from a tropical riot of colour, as in her sketchbook view of a café garden, to the tonal delicacy that realises the silvery shimmer of an onion skin, the refulgent splendour of those small bananas and the silken opacity of garlic.

Who, I wondered, would want a small painting of bananas? Then I remembered Cezanne’s apples.

For Kagia, drawing is more than a way of illustrating aspects of her life.

For, after training as an illustrator, she took a Master’s degree in drawing as process; incorporating drawing in other fields as a tool for thinking and problem solving, in addition to creating works of art.

Then she was awarded a doctorate in reportage drawing… the development and practice of drawing to document everyday life. As part of her researches she spoke at length to war artists as well as to an ordinary soldier who carried a sketchbook in Iraq and through drawing explored his experiences as a way of understanding and coming to terms with them.

With her shiny new doctorate, Kagia spent time teaching in the UK and Germany as well as travelling around the world completing commissions for portraits and other observational work.

Now back in Kenya she is continuing her practice, using drawing as an immediate response to her surroundings.

Thus the street scenes, drawings of people, of zebras (seen in Naivasha), a steam engine and old cars and those full colour studies of fruits and vegetables could be seen as well written essays or perhaps a diary recording her day-to-day life.

Then, hung together on one wall, six life drawings suddenly surprise with their elegance and verve. They have been made swiftly from the model using conte crayon on paper.

And if the ink drawings are essays, the life drawings are poems.

They were made often as exemplars to her students while teaching regular life drawing classes at the Polka Dot.

There is about them a sense of release; almost as if conte, with its more involving, more forgiving quality than ink, has freed her to explore the models with a surging confident line, enhanced by flowing washes of watercolour or broad sweeps with the edge of the crayon that accentuate the pose, adding direction, power and, sometimes, an element of decoration to the work.

Kagia understands the formal side of her business well, catching the musculature of a man stooping from his chair, or the weight of fat that rolls softly across the body of one particular model; a friend of the artist and a regular sitter.

These are drawings that while descriptive also add something of the artist’s joy of making to the work; the process is a pleasure, the result a delight.

But one thought remains — are bananas fruit, vegetable or herb? That’s a question that has puzzled many people and one that even these drawings cannot resolve…

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