GALLERIES: Contrast in styles teaches a lesson...

Saturday July 13 2019

'Facing my World' by Herbert Kalule.

'Facing my World' by Herbert Kalule. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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The paintings of two artists currently holding a joint exhibition offer a refreshing contrast in styles.

It echoes the differences of the formally trained eye compared with one that is mainly instinctive.

And that also highlights the differences between the pioneering self-taught First Generation of Kenyan painters and those who followed.

In this case the two painters are Ugandans, friends from Kampala, and it helps that both went through a school system where art is taught as an examinable subject.

Then one of the two, Edison Mugalu, went on to study art at Makerere, while the other, Herbert Kalule, developed his own style based on enthusiasm and a handy feeling for form, colour and composition.

Each is showing around 15 paintings, acrylics on canvas, at the Banana Hill Art Gallery to the west of Nairobi, until the end of this month.


If we are to think of it in a rather vulgar way as a contest — trained against self-taught — there is no clear winner.

Mugalu handles paint with the confidence that comes from clear tuition and hours of practice, his thick slabs of colour morphing into groups of people in busy street scenes (The City I Call Home being one example) and then steps back from the precipice to offer a controlled but fairly standard post-Sickertian view of a group of people called The Waiting Stage.

Kalule’s raw expressionist force — seen to advantage in his robust portrait Facing my World — is reminiscent of the Belgian James Ensor’s searing paintings of politicans dressed as clowns or in carnival masks.

While Mugalu puts his people in their settings, for Kalule the people are the setting and he focuses tightly on their peculiarities.

In Facing my World for instance, the subject’s mouth is wildly detached from the face; something a formally trained artist would be likely to do only after years of developing a style; arriving at a similar solution by a circuitous and more measured route.

For Kalule it seems automatic, as though the lack of tertiary tuition has given him the freedom to respond viscerally to his subject.

Less successful is his portrait The Care Taker, in which he uses thick strings of paint to create an impasto that fails to disguise a lack of incisive drawing skill and also fails to make up for that with energy and any quirky originality.

It is this lack of consistency, this variability, that often marks out the self-taught painter from one fresh from the rigours of the life class.

Meanwhile one well known First Generation Kenyan artist has relaunched her career by opening her home and studio for a one-day solo show.

Tabitha wa Thuku welcomed friends, collectors and dealers to her base off Raphta Road in Nairobi’s Westlands to view around 60 of her mixed media paintings; some old, some completed only recently.

The exhibition, called Rebirth, was planned to be the first of a series — one every two months — that will also put other First Generation artists back in the spotlight.

Thuku believes they are in danger of becoming neglected.

“There are so many talented young painters around today,” she said, “that the older ones, who really helped to lay the foundation for the popularity of Kenyan art, are in danger of being forgotten — yet we have all got so much still to give.”

Thuku, who followed such luminaries as Eunuce Wadu, Lucy Njeri and Annabelle Wanjiku to exhibit at the Watatu Gallery, and later the Paa ya Paa in Kiambu and then the Signature Gallery that used to stand on the site of the Integrity Centre on the capital’s Valley Road, began painting professionally in 1989 and has remained a stalwart of the regional art scene ever since.

'Untitled' by Tabitha wa Thuku. PHOTO | FRANK
'Untitled' by Tabitha wa Thuku. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Although the quality of her painting can vary — her sudden switches of style and huge, gambolling figures that defy anatomy do her no favours — Thuku can surprise and delight with paintings of startling quality.

A case in point was a small landscape called Little Paradise, made at her farm in the village of Ndondori, on Kinagop, shown at the Circle Art Gallery in a mixed exhibition last year.

An intensely personal work made with love and with no eye on a potential sale or even an audience, it dazzled with its stripped down strength and authenticity.

The 60 or so works shown last Saturday ranged from a group of tightly focussed 16cm by 13cm canvases, mainly of people, to the 350cm by 60cm sprawl of Neighbours, a predominantly brown narrative painting that highlights gossips who all know each others’ business.

Commented Thuku after the show: “With the big name galleries all booked and the attention going to the new, younger artists I decided to do something for myself...I have a big house and studio so I decided to become reborn in my own space.”