Artist finds inspiration and models in the chicken run

Friday December 07 2012

Mother Hen by Florence Wangui exhibited at the GoDown centre in Nairobi. Photo/Frank Whalley

Artists are a bunch of idle wastrels. When not drinking themselves into oblivion they spend their time ogling nudes on the pretext of painting them. Right? Wrong.

To be even a half-good artist requires relentless determination, endless hard work and a level of concentration that would outdo even the proverbial rocket scientist. Which is why, of course, art lives through generations while rockets go whoosh into the sea.

This dedication is exemplified by the work of one young artist yet to burst onto the regional scene. But believe me, Florence Wangui is on her way.

Her tough, vigorous charcoal drawings are for me the highlight of a current exhibition by artists and students based at the GoDown in Nairobi’s Industrial Area. It is on until December 18.

Wangui is a student of the painter Patrick Mukabi and she took up art only 11 months ago.

Since then she has reached a level of maturity that would do credit to a professional of long standing. Her skills have already been rewarded by the promise of a first solo show, at the city’s prestigious One-Off gallery next year.


So, how has Wangui got so far in 11 short months?

There is no magic involved; no short cut. She has done it by applying herself ruthlessly to the course in drawing devised by Mukabi.

Staring at 7am each day and often not finishing before 8pm, Wangui has drawn firstly cups (to study form and volume) and having got them right, moved on to bottles (to learn how to handle transparency) then tins and other shiny objects (reflections), followed by still-life and finally the human figure.

Unlike many of Mukabi’s pupils however, instead of following in her master’s brushstrokes by painting joyously plump market women, she found a subject she has made her own. Hens.

They belong to her mother with whom she lives in the city’s Jericho estate and are an ever present and presumably compliant and free subject. No model fees to pay save a handful of corn.

Wangui offers two large charcoal-on-paper drawings at the GoDown: Mother Hen (some 4ft by 3ft) and the even larger Preening at Noon (around 4ft by 6ft).

Each captures precisely the fierce, inquisitive eyes of the birds and describes beautifully their form, their plump weight and the density that lies beneath their fluff of feathers. The birds emerge from a fluster of charcoal dug deep into the surface; clearly a medium the artist relishes.
You can hear these hens scratch and croon.

In absorbing everything Mukabi has to teach about the technical side of art, Wangui has turned for her stylistic inspiration to Peterson Kamwathi and is now attempting to do for hens what he did for sheep — that sonorous building of tone on a skeleton of sound, incisive line.

Unlike Kamwathi’s large sheep — which deal with the place of modern weaponry in conflict and now can hardly be found, let alone bought, for love or money — Wangui’s hens lack a political edge, although they do add a level of interest and even dignity to birds dismissed by most of us as one cluck away from the table.

There is, however, sensitivity of line and sharp observation, with the foundations firmly in place.

Wangui has already earned plaudits as a star of the future, a position achieved through a fierce self-discipline.

There are other good things to see at the GoDown too… three heads by Michael Soi of his girls from Nairobi — the City of Angels — two Egon Schiele-ish studies of club patrons by Thom Ogonga, and a painterly little road scene by Moses Amwayi that shows three cyclists hanging onto the back of a lorry.

But of the 50 or so paintings and installations by 15 resident artists and 12 students based at the GoDown, what I liked best after Wangui’s hens was a construction by Charles Ngatia, a man entirely self taught but equally dedicated to his work.

Although untitled, its subject was a slice of city life. Here is the shoe repairer with the sandals to prove it, there the electronics shop with a battered motherboard glued to the surface, next door is a club with its emblematic Tusker label, while down at the bottom are a couple of labels from tins of glue.

Taking the eye at top left is a painted face beneath a fringe of dreadlocks with the slogan “Small Demons.” The dreads are real. They were Ngatia’s own, now gaily painted but harking back to the time he cut them off because he was fed up with being dismissed as worthless because of his hairstyle.

Ngatia has dealt with his demons in a piece full of energy — light, bright, raw and rowdy. And great fun to view.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email:[email protected]