Kind of Blue is rated by many as the finest jazz recording ever made.
Certainly this 1959 studio album by trumpeter Miles Davies had a landmark influence on the genre. Solidly rooted in the Blues, it unintentionally proved the truth of guitar legend Robert Johnson’s comment that the blues can make you or break you. Surely it made Miles.
Blue moon, feeling blue, blue heaven, and then there’s the bride who must wear “something borrowed, something blue”... our lives are so steeped in blue that it must have seemed a natural choice for curator Carol Lees when fishing around for a theme for her current exhibition at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi.
And so we have Blue, darkly, deeply, beautifully Blue, a mixed show by 10 artists, on until January 15, all of which contain — to a greater and in some cases very lesser extent — the colour blue.
Like most themed mixed exhibitions, it contains some of the usual stuff by the usual suspects but also a few surprises, one being Dickson Otieno’s woven tin sculpture Doctor from his School Uniform series. Modelled as a shirt and shorts, it reflects the artist’s concern about how we are pigeonholed at school and how that affects our lives.
This was the only sculpture in the show, which otherwise consists of 19 paintings and one photograph in the main gallery plus a few other works in the Stables annex.
The photo by James Muriuki that greets visitors with a pair of blue canvas shoes, not suede alas, while dominating the far end of the gallery, is a large abstract by Justus Kyalo.
This oil on canvas — 140cm by 170cm and the most completely blue thing in the entire exhibition; perhaps therefore its signature painting — is called Untitled IV and is informed by the open skies and landscapes around Kitengela to the east of Nairobi. It rewards a long look… try gazing beyond the picture plane and see how the many subtle shades of blue shift, receding and then coming forward to envelop you.
Also in the main gallery is Kyalo’s Untitled III, another, more readable, abstraction of the local landscape with its three bands of russet, and dark and light blues.
Other favourites on show include Timothy Brooke’s reductive view of Mt Kenya with its snow-capped peak, plus an idyll that incudes a couple of donkeys grazing beneath an azure sky with cotton wool clouds, and two paintings by Richard Kimathi, both featuring his trademark cut-out figures stuck onto the canvas.
Ehoodi Kichapi contributes three typical paintings, two of crazed looking cows and one — by far the best; an easy contender for the the best thing in the whole exhibition — of a springing frog, cherry red with white spots and mad, glaring golden eyes.
Fortunately for the curator, it is painted on a clear sky-blue background; a striking colour combination that earned it a place on the wall. For Kichapi, the frog with its unexpected leaps and sudden changes of direction is a symbol of chaos and social unrest. Enough said.
Anthony Okello also offers three paintings, two of them of policemen’s heads and one of a woman in front of fields of waving wheat. It is called View of Timau. But why is it that most of Okello’s characters look as through they are sucking a pickle?
Next to them are a couple of Surrealist paintings by James Mbuthia, one of which, Head Gear, shows two women melding into one and sharing a single, dramatic head cloth.
The excellence of Rashid Diab, a Sudanese painter with a big reputation and prices to match, has rather passed me by. His women huddled together in gossipy groups, shrouded in bright buibuis, are well painted and beautifully composed but they don’t tell me much that is new, or interesting, or exciting.
Very capable and great for those who like them, I guess. And yes, some of the gowns are blue. I much prefer Diab’s revelatory watercolours and screen prints.
Making a welcome appearance at the One-Off is David Roberts, whose multilayering technique produces translucent works that shimmer behind the glass.
In the main gallery were hung his Gathering Storm, a sparkling Impressionist view of Lake Baringo — he was brought up on its shores — plus a delicate painting, The Gentle Drop, of an appropriately blue flower (I’m told it is a wild hibiscus) caught mid-fall, while two more of his blue flowers can be seen lighting up a corner of the annex. Painted on layers of rice and tissue paper these delicate pieces project light from within the frame.
David Roberts spent four years developing his technique, studying first at the University of Creative Arts in Farnham, UK, where the famed Kenyan ceramicist Magdalene Odundo taught and is about to become chancellor, and then in Florence, Italy, and on to the US.
Among all the paintings on show it is Roberts’s flowers and Kyalo’s abstracted landscapes in which blue is central to the works. In all the others, the blue is incidental; a happenstance that validates the theme.
And as a theme it is a neat idea: Choose a colour and let that be the hinge for a show.
So what next? Mellow Yellow maybe, Rowdy Red perhaps, or even — oh, no! — Fifty Shades of Grey.