Life is rarely what it seems, and to enter the current exhibition of paintings by Beatrice Wanjiku is to stand both at the entrance to the womb and on the edge of the grave.
With international honours to her credit — voted top African artist at the New York Art Fair, among them — and widely praised for her entry in the most recent Venice Biennale, Wanjiku is among the foremost artists of this region.
This exhibition can only enhance her standing.
Wanjiku’s achievement lies in her search for self amid the continuing crisis of the human condition and in making that personal concern relevant to us all.
Her exhibition of 26 mixed media paintings on canvas and paper plus one monoprint has taken over the whole of the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi. It is on until November 18.
The vigour of Wanjiku’s work remains undimmed and her paintings radiate energy and commitment to her search.
Her palette, with its familiar pinks, blood reds and disturbing Prussian blues and greys, is now lightened a little with, for example, the flecks of cadmium red that enliven Death, Love, Time II and the melting harmonies that produce the lyrical beauty of Released in the Ending of Craving VI.
Underpinning them all are the formal skills, particularly in drawing and colour, that have enabled her to develop her immediately recognisable voice.
Her drawing is at its finest in Aches of Ceaseless Divining V, and In Want of All Things, both of which feature a foreshortened figure lying on its back. The tension of the thighs in Resume your Flesh and Form VI is also superbly described.
These lengthy titles are typical and probably mean more to artist than viewer yet they signify that the paintings are chapters of a visual thesis; encapsulated by the title of the exhibition, Mourning a Memory; the Proustian realisation of times — and dreams — now lost except as memories.
The work falls into clusters with its own subtitles, three examples of which I interpret thus:
A Fragment of Ourselves Returning — Reclaiming ourselves through our memories;
Let Slip the Reins — The translation of a Kikuyu proverb; roughly, “Let life take its course.”
Resume your Flesh and Form — Come back to your own identity.
Layered onto these narratives is a rich sexual imagery of form and colour that is unstated but obvious.
The head and neck in Resume your Flesh and Form V is clearly phallic, while the many open mouths, glittering teeth and soft red pear shapes need no further explanation.
It is as though by focusing on the genitalia of her figures, their bold couplings and the apparatus of procreation, the artist is examining within the wider context of her argument both the sources of inspiration generally and, more precisely, the roots of her own creativity; an intellectual concept made flesh.
These paintings then, while eloquent realisations of distress at our predicament rather than of sublimated or repressed desire, together celebrate both the genesis of life and the act of artistic creation.
In offering them, Wanjiku makes her pitch to join the canon of great artists who have considered the traces we leave as we navigate the momentum of life.
Painters in this pantheon include Goya and his late murals typified by Saturn Devouring his Son, Edvard Munch with the ambivalence of that gaping mouth in The Scream and, as always with Wanjiku, Francis Bacon and his unrelenting vision of our plight in the face of what he called, “the brutality of fact.”
It is a daring throw of the dice.
Of course, such a vision need not always be so violently, almost palpably, presented. Rembrandt expressed a similar internalised despair in his late self-portraits. It is there to be seen.
Yet Wanjiku is young for such a view.
And that is odd because you would go 1,000 miles to find someone with a sunnier disposition. That explains the celebration of creation… but what of the darker side of this work; the recognition of the horrors that dog our every footstep in the daily struggle?
I assumed this meant Wanjiku was prone to sudden plunges into an anguish revealed only through the catharsis of her work.
In fact, the artist shrugs off the dystopian aspects of her paintings not as dread thoughts in the dead of night but simply as reflections of our times and their complexity.
Well that’s a relief, then.