Crisp carving that takes the eye

Friday December 26 2014



Pamoja by Gakunju Kaigwa. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Pamoja by Gakunju Kaigwa. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

By FRANK WHALLEY

Some see men, some see women, some see one of each and some see children… and the sculptor Gakunju Kaigwa likes it that way. His bronze casting Pamoja (Together) of two figures entwined in a loving hug is deliberately ambiguous, giving the widest possible interpretation to its title.

Its richly patinated chocolate brown metal gives a warm glow to what is a superb piece of figurative art, given the oxygen of exposure after many years tucked away in his studio.

It was cast, one of two, from an original sculpture carved by Kaigwa in 1996 from alabaster, a stone noted for its softness and translucent beauty. He was studying bronze casting at the time at a foundry in New Jersey, and so developing the piece as a bronze was a logical step.

One casting was sold, three more are planned and one is offered in the current mixed exhibition Recent Works at the One-Off Gallery in Nairobi. It takes the eye.

The carving is crisp and carries echoes, in its squared off planes, of the masters of the post-Cubist wave that swept Europe in the 1920s… of Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska and the Italian Futurists with their belief in the new, machine age.

Kaigwa’s biggest influence, however, was a Ugandan sculptor, John Odoth Ameny, for a time production manager at the African Heritage workshops, who taught him among other things the importance of the void.

Now fairly described as the doyen of Kenyan sculptors, Kaigwa trained as a painter, taking a Bachelor of Education course to be an art teacher before he was seduced into sculpture by the sheer pleasure of carving. I think Pamoja is one of the best works I have seen by Kaigwa, probably because of the sensual glow of its surface and the unerring simplicity of the carving.

There are other things to please at this exhibition of some 20 paintings and six sculptures that runs through January. One is a giant painting by Peter Ngugi, another a relaxed and ravishing oil by Timothy Brooke, and then there is a drawing by Peterson Kamwathi, from his series of people at prayer.

Called Study II for Positions Series 2013, it is a group of repeated cut-out figures arranged on a plain background and is Kamwathi’s reaction to the tensions between Christianity and Islam. Positions supplicants adopt for prayer form an unconscious unifying factor through their similarities; perhaps with these drawings he is telling us that in monotheistic faiths more binds us than divides us.

I was taken too with Peter Ngugi’s painting White Moccasin Rebellion. Unfortunately I did not care much for his earlier work — small, tight pictures of individual animals that I thought unbearably fussy and best suited as place mats or mouse pads. I could not see the point of them.

Now however, both in scale and scope, Ngugi is becoming a very interesting artist. There is still the relentless attention to detail, but now it comes on the grand scale. The painting in this show is some two metres square, and is executed with meticulous care.

It shows eight people tumbling all over the canvas, carrying AK-47s made of kanga cloth, cut out and pasted onto the surface. The picture tells of wananchi — they wear white shoes to show they are civilians, not shod with fighting boots — who are trying to make a living but unintentionally opening the door to chaos. They are guns in the wrong hands.

I admire trade craft and respect the effort in Ngugi’s latest work. The idea strikes me as interesting, the execution seamless. My respect for this artist is growing with every sighting… but I still yearn for a touch of soul, a drop of blood.

I found neither, surprisingly, in Florence Wangui’s drawing of a flying hen which, while demonstrating admirable draughtsmanship, failed to stir me. It seemed rather rushed; a touch automatic.

The go-faster flashes of charcoal lines around the bird reminded me more of a cartoon than her usual, careful observation. It appeared too easy a solution to the problems of showing speed. The face was good though; unblinking fierce eye and stabbing beak… not a chicken to mess with.

Blood aplenty came with Ehoodi Kichape’s painting Soap Soup, predominantly red — blood red — with a typically severed head and incongruously the word “Soap.”

And there was much to admire in Timothy Brooke’s depiction of a Maasai herdsboy driving his goats. A few succulent strokes of white highlight the backs of the herd and bring the entire picture to life. Clouds scud by. The painting is a masterclass in how to do a lot with a little. The trouble is, it takes a lifetime to get it right.

Pictures are also on show by Richard Kimathi, Shabu Mwangi, James Mbuthia, John Kamicha, Beatrice Wanjiku, Peter Elungat, Fitsum Behre and Anthony Okello, and there are sculptures by, as well as Kaigwa, Harrison Mburu and the wonderfully named Baldy Osborne. Well, is he, or isn’t he? We need to know.

A very happy and prosperous New Year to you all.

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