Bold new strokes in the chicken run

Friday November 01 2013

In Flight by Florence Wangui. Photo/Frank Whalley

In the 20 months that Florence Wangui has been a professional artist she has come a long way.

From detailed if slightly anxious studies of the hens in her mother’s coop, she has developed a language that now combines accurate drawing with a growing awareness of her place in society.

Hens were a good choice for Wangui as a vehicle for her continuing voyage of self-discovery. As a graduate of zoological sciences and biochemistry, she can be presumed to know them inside out. And given that they run around her family home in Nairobi’s Eastlands, she had a ready and cheap source of models on tap.

When she decided to give up the sciences and focus on art, in January 2012, Wangui joined Patrick Mukabi’s drawing school at the GoDown Arts Centre in the city’s Industrial Area.

There, starting at 7am each day and working until 8pm, she drew cups, to study form and volume, then bottles, to learn about the effects of light and transparency, then tins (reflections) followed by still life groups and finally the human figure.

Her first drawings of hens were meticulous. They caught the hard outer feathering, the plump softness of the down and hints of the lean muscles that lay beneath. They caught too the bird’s fiercely inquisitive eye; a look that was to become a metaphor for the artist’s own searching inquiry into the form and substance of her subject.


With time and practice, the chickens became more than accurate depictions of weight and shape, they became alive on the sheet.

And recently there has been an injection of humour as Wangui catches them in postures that relate all too easily to our human antics. Happily she does so without any sentimental anthropomorphising — leave that to Disney and his ilk —but nonetheless catches one or two traits we can all recognise.

I remember seeing one downy chicken ambling gawkily down the paper for all the world like a truculent teenager finding his feet.

And I recall too a drawing of three chickens set diagonally across the paper, that were in fact one chicken caught in various stages of a short, jumpy flight.

(This sort of freeze-frame drawing is an old trick. I think it was first used by the Paleolithic hunters who drew on caves some 12,000 years ago. They showed what at first seemed like six or so deer, but could be interpreted not as a small herd but as one deer in movement. The Indian artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century ateliers did the same thing... a tiger or bear being hunted would be painted several times to show its path as it ran to escape the lance. At the end of the sequence it would be shown one final time, lying dead.)

Both these drawings of chickens by Wangui — in charcoal on large sheets of paper — were shown at the One Off Contemporary Art Gallery in Nairobi’s Lone Tree Rosslyn estate, where she is now a gallery artist in the company of other such luminaries as Peterson Kamwathi, Ehoodi Kichapi and Richard Kimathi.

Wangui seems to have become part of the regional art scene remarkably quickly with pictures at the Go Down and the National Museums and now, after less than two years as a professional and just turned 27, with her first solo show exhibition at the One Off.

On until November 20, it is of 12 charcoal drawings on paper — and it lives up to all expectations.

Better still, it shows an artist developing her own clear voice in answer to those questions that trouble us most: Who am I? And what on earth am I doing here?

Wangui is drawing as accurately as ever — and what a relief it is to see work by an artist who has troubled to get the basics right — but doing so with a new confidence, almost an insouciance, that shows she is rapidly becoming a mistress of her craft… an assurance that allows her to express herself knowing the mechanical bits will fall automatically into place.

Perhaps the best way to describe this is to liken her to a musician who is no longer struggling to learn her instrument and follow the dots. She reads the score at a glance and her fingers fall instinctively on the right keys, allowing her to interpret the music without stumbling over the method.

Of the 12 drawings, one reveals this new found maturity better than most. Called Viewpoint 1, it is one of the artist’s favourites in the show, probably because, more than most, she used the drawing of four hens looking querulously at others in the background as a way to explore relationships.

When she began to draw, Wangui wondered what others made of her work — and by extension, of her. Visually, she dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” to be safe.

Now she appears to be more comfortable in her own skin; initial doubts have gone and been replaced by a growing self-confidence. The hens in the background that add depth to the drawing are described simply, in outline, with minimum fuss, and left as ciphers, throwing the foreground into sharp relief. And that is something Wangui would not have dared to do just a few months ago.

This new sense of certainty can be seen too in the four-part drawing In Flight. Look at the immaculate feathering, the blurred flurry of the wingtips (she handles movement so well) and the precision of the poses. Then look at the feet. They appear sketchy, unfinished. Yet they are convincing.

Previously Wangui would have drawn them more tightly, yet here the observation is just as close, it is simply that the final detail is not needed. The rough, open strokes are sufficient to convey the truth of the subject.

Incidentally, they say necessity is the mother of invention. Wangui likes working large, drawing with the whole arm. But she could not find sheets of paper big enough. Local suppliers were out of stock. Therefore she took four smaller sheets, joined them to complete the drawing, then opened them out again to display the finished work. The effect is like an explosion.

It is a pleasure to see a collection of work so academically accurate yet so relaxed.

If Wangui carries on with this degree of concern for her craft, coupled with a continued investigation into her relationship with the world around her, she is going to start speaking universal truths and find herself to be a very big name indeed. I would love to see what she would make of a maribou stork.