Colour me mellow yellow - and look behind the mask

Friday September 4 2015

Black Face, White Masks, by Eria Nsubuga. PHOTO

Black Face, White Masks, by Eria Nsubuga. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 


If a church, mosque or temple near you suddenly turns bright yellow, you will be witness to an extraordinary new work by a team of East African artists.

This work — or “intervention” as we pretentious art critics like to call such things — is aimed at no less than promoting understanding and peace among people of all faiths and of no faith.

Who says art and politics do not mix? Art rarely comes with a bigger goal than that.

Like most big ideas, this is not new.

One of my favourite artists, Peterson Kamwathi, who is widely respected for his breadth of vision and multidisciplinary approach, trod a parallel path with his mixed media drawings and collages in the Positions series.

They demonstrated the broadly analogous postures adopted for prayer by Christians and Muslims and through that the similarities of thought behind most faiths, in which the will of the individual is surrendered to a higher spiritual authority; his entreating figures becoming emblems of the potential for unity rather than division.


Other leading artists who never shy away from political statements include Michael Soi (of course, as can be seen in Sex and the City II, his current two-hander with Thom Ogonga at the Alliance Francaise), Richard Kimathi, Peter Walala, Anthony Okello and latterly, Peter Ngugi.

Then there are Ehoodi Kichapi with his merry eye for urban chaos, Paul Onditi, Gor Soudan, Shabu Mwangi… heavens, they are all at it, making often hauntingly beautiful art in the process.

And as for turning buildings yellow, well, something even grander was a regular feature of the “interventions” of Christo, a Bulgarian who, with his wife Jeanne-Claude, wrapped the Reichstag in 100,000 square metres of silver polypropylene sheeting, or plastic paper to you and me. It took 15 kilometres of rope to tie in place.

So, to the Colour in Faith project with its co-ordinator Zablon Wekesa and lead artist, the Columbian Yazmany Arboleda.

Their team’s immediate aim is to stress the ties that unite rather that the divisions that threaten different faiths. And the closest tie, they believe, is the power of love.

They hope to project this in two ways — first by inviting people to explore the roles of faith in contemporary culture; and second by painting places of worship yellow as a manifestation of that power of love.

The first part of the project was to take place last Wednesday at the Circle Art Agency in Lavington, Nairobi, where a bishop, a sheikh, a pastor and a Hindu priest (no rabbi) welcomed questions from gallery-goers about their beliefs.

The second, more dramatic part of the project — turning your local house of worship a mellow yellow — is planned for later this month.

Already on the list for a quick paint job are 27 buildings in Nairobi, including churches at Kasabuni, Mathare North and Dandora, and mosques at Korogocho, Grogan and Huruma.

Why choose Kenya?

That is because the immediate concern of the Colour in Faith group is that the country has recently experienced a growing dominance of fundamentalist voices and terrorism justified on religious grounds, threatening Kenya’s long established culture of tolerance.

Former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi was known as the Professor of Politics. He was said to be so tuned to the nuances of power that he turned political expediency into an art form.

Now a growing number of East African artists are creating “interventions” that transform the art of politics from clever metaphor into literal fact.

Politics is high on the agenda in Uganda, too, in the colourful form of paintings by Eria “Sane” Nsubuga, busy consolidating a reputation for himself as an artist focusing on the allocation of resources, on morality and spirituality.

His new show is called Black Face, White Masks, taken from a book by Frantz Fanon (Black Skins, White Masks, 1952) which looks at black (original) and white (the imposed mask) as signifiers of a colonial construct. 

In this exhibition of 25 paintings, Nsubuga also addresses black aesthetics, questioning what he believes to be Western definitions of beauty and the conflicts that globalism presents to beauty in Africans.

It is this, he thinks, that makes black women (and some men, like Congolese singers) use skin lightening creams, dye their hair blonde or red, and wear synthetic coloured hair pieces, furthering the loss of cultural authenticity.

Personally, I feel, as a Western man, that black women need to know we (and I speak for absolutely all Western men absolutely everywhere, except those flogging lightening creams) find their skin colour beautiful in its infinite variety and view the practice of whitening as both dangerous and absurd.

So stop it!

The show is on at the Afriart Gallery in Kamwokya, Kampala until the end of this month. There Nsubuga’s mixed media paintings reveal vigorous brushstrokes well suited to promoting his robust polemic. Their strong outlines, bright colours, and maximum use of collage speak volumes — and the argument is provocative.

One to catch.

The critic John Berger said (and I paraphrase) that art was legitimate only if it helped people to know their rights.

I am not sure that I go that far but I do believe that any work of art should help us all — and especially the artist who created it — to understand ourselves and our own society better, and through that gain a greater awareness of other people’s social structures too.

So long as we leave leeway for a little bit of fun.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.