Peter Kibunja is one of those artists whose work you see without really noticing.
His paintings are an essential part of the background buzz to the regional art scene. If one day they were not there you would know something was missing, but maybe not be sure exactly what had gone.
You have seen his work...stylised women’s heads on scumbled green backgrounds, with their long, lank hair falling to the shoulders and framing the face.
The eyes are big, the expression either calm or soulful, the mouth set low above a short, squared off chin, rather like an updated cartoon of Betty Boop.
You can find them in many places, but their home is at the Banana Hill Art Centre in that town to the west of Nairobi where they have been a regular feature for the past 25 years.
They are distinctive and with sufficient personality to draw a passing comment from a guest without sparking any prolonged discussion.
For Kibunja’s practice has suddenly opened out and like the fields of flowers blooming in the rains that follow a long, long drought, his palette has exploded with colour and his stylised faces have multiplied into canvas after canvas of faces and figures in patterns that dazzle and excite.
This dramatic and welcome change can be seen in an exhibition of 45 of his recent paintings at Banana Hill.
Kibunja, aged 44 and married with one daughter, was born and lives in the artists’ village of Ngecha, near Banana Hill, where he became a disciple of Wanyu Brush, and where he has his studio.
Of the paintings made there and currently on show, the most striking are those in his new heavily patterned style that reflects the earlier training he had as a designer.
With a palette of reds, orange, sugary pinks, and browns set against blue backgrounds and with flashes of lime green and yellow highlights, the old familiar faces are there, but now as part of full figures and in multiple rows.
His women now have arms and legs and they bustle along together carrying handbags and their shopping. Stereotypes still, but at least the imagery is developing.
The flat planes of colour are used to separate spaces rather than model the figures, essentially a graphic approach, with scenes evenly lit and without shadows to set depth. There is no attempt at perspective, either, and it is pattern, purely pattern, that reigns.
I could imagine these carefully worked out designs (almost mathematical in their precision) as fabric, perhaps for upholstery, curtains or duvet covers that would bring a riot of colour to your room.
As for now they are on canvas and ready to be framed (broad and plain polished black or white would be my suggestion) and because of their vitality they also look good as intended, adding vibrant decoration your wall.
Titles like Market Scene and Busy Street set the tone, while for fans of his older work, his single heads, there is a more modern take on those too…
heads under the general title of Mona Lisa (his exhibition is called Mona’s Story) but with darker faces and neon hair to give them a fresh new look.
So, no longer a background buzz—more a well-crafted cry from the wall that should get the attention it deserves.
Meanwhile, the artist-owner of the gallery, Shine Tani, is a man wrestling with a problem.
He believes some of his artists are stealing his own work and selling it on.
“I feel so bad that it is my people who might be doing this,” he said. “I have lost several works recently and it’s no consolation to know that at least it means my paintings must be popular.”
This time Shine has suffered a large loss—a painting called Slum Dwellers that is 130x127cm and was priced at $16,000.
“At first when things began to go I thought I might have left it somewhere and then forgotten exactly where,” explained Shine, “but it was happening too often and sadly I have concluded it must be theft.”
He thinks the painting may have been left in a store room at the back of the building, from where it was taken.
Competed in 2008, the painting, on canvas—easily rolled up and smuggled out of the door—shows a group of women going about their business amid a flurry of energetic brushwork.
In Shine’s typical style, the women are painted with cerulean dresses and head scarves, carry bright green food gourds and are set against a chaotic background of caramel tones and umber. The effect is busy, warm and pleasing.
The moral of this story—if moral there be—is that if you want a painting by Shine Tani only buy it from the artist or his wife, the painter Rahab Shine, and get it from the gallery, not from anyone claiming to be an intermediary.
And if you happen to know the whereabouts of Slum Dwellers, just let Shine know—and be ready to claim your reward.