Deep in the forest with all its mysteries

Friday January 2 2015

Big Owl, by Jony Waite. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Big Owl, by Jony Waite. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY  

By FRANK WHALLEY

Jony Waite loves trees, almost as much as she loves changing her name, or at least offering variations on the theme.

We first knew her as Jony Waite, American artist and part owner of the now defunct Watatu Gallery in Nairobi. She gave an opening to many a struggling painter and helped to kick-start the resurgence of interest in East African painting and sculpture. The entire art scene in this region owes much to her… and as gallery owner Carol Lees succinctly put it, “we all stand on her shoulders.”

Lees repaid this debt by curating her year-ending exhibition Into the Trees at the National Museum on Museum Hill, Nairobi — and made a cracking job of it, too.

Meanwhile, Waite underwent several, if not transformations, then at least nuanced changes in nomenclature. First Jony became Yony, which spelt as Yoni is the Sanskrit word for “heavenly passage.” We need go no further except to say it can be found in a particular Indian textbook beloved by most schoolboys and many an adult.

Then Waite became Wai*te. I know not why, any more than I know why the pop star Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) became the unpronounceable O(+> and “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Now Wai*te has become Wai-te. Again I have no idea why.

Waite, it should be said, is an indomitable woman of immense spirit. When her studio at Athi River outside Nairobi burnt down recently, and she lost hundreds of paintings and drawings, she scarcely broke stride and got back to work with a will. Thankfully, her museum show was largely unaffected, for many of the paintings were made in California (hence the proliferation of North American pines).

So, to this work, or possibly wo*rk. Or maybe wo-rk. The pictures were soundly drawn and sympathetically painted with big decisive strokes. Occasionally, in the larger works, they sacrificed tension for the broad sweep of the artist’s imagination. All were hugely enhanced by the presentation.

Carol Lees, owner of the One-Off gallery in Nairobi — which staged this exhibition of some 64 acrylic paintings, six mixed media drawings and even three pieces of decorated furniture (one folding screen, a sofa and an upholstered chair) — was given the freedom to transform the vast Creative Gallery on the museum’s upper floor.

She began by blacking out the clerestory windows to create a darker, more intimate interior, in which she then placed screens and a bench to create a more human scale. Then she coloured the walls in a rag-rolled green, which told of light filtering through to a forest floor.

It was the perfect backdrop for these pictures. We were deep in the forest with all its mysteries, wandering through a poem.
Why is this approach not adopted for all exhibitions? Galleries should be responsive to whatever they show.

There is a symbiosis between the works and their surroundings. It is not enough to bang a few nails in the wall and hang the pictures where you may; nor is it enough to shove a few sculptures onto stands and dot them around the floor, hoping nobody will trip over them. Presenting art is an art in itself.

Another adjunct to any successful exhibition — as well as a sympathetic settting, good lighting, sensitive hanging and clear labelling — is an informative catalogue. This show scored well there too, with a full-colour 80-page booklet by the photographer James Muriuki that enabled visitors to take the whole show home.

Of the pictures this supported, I loved their vigour but thought the colours a touch too chalky and the paint rather dragged. This is not entirely Waite’s fault; it is common to most pictures made with fast-drying acrylics instead of oils.

You sacrifice quality for convenience. I prefer succulent slabs of pigment that feed the eye and nourish the soul and there was not a lot of that to see.

Waite was not helped by her consistently sludgy palette of greens, browns, creams and greys (she has never done riotous explosions of colour, so far as I know) that set the mood, but tended at times to blur instead of define.

In her best works Waite took us into her dreams, sharing her anxieties and her joys. Trees are her metaphor for life. And it was in her smaller, more sharply focused pictures like Variations of the Enigma, at only 20cm x 25cm, that the artist was at her finest. Their intensity offered a precise vision of her love of woodlands and the secrets locked within them.

In some of her larger pictures (and they ran up to 201cm x 267cm) this tautness was dissipated and the result became muddied and dull. It is when she aimed for broad sweeps of landscape — rather than penetrating studies of leaves, the patterns of dappled light, or webs of interlocking branches — that her authority became lost in a swirling ectoplasm of paint. Even though her repeated giraffe and wildebeest motifs gave the eye something to hang onto, they did not save the day.

There were brilliant exceptions, however, and the one I would point to most of all was Big Owl; sustained, crisp and incisive. I also enjoyed the fluid brilliance of her mixed media drawings. They offered a glorious spontaneity.

As I said in the beginning, Jony Yony Waite, Wai*te, Wai-te loves trees — and we should love, lo*ve, lo-ve her for it.