A teacher told me, “If you want to understand something, write it down.”
Her theory was that the act of writing longhand slowed you sufficiently to give time for the subject to sink in.
I think she was right — and it is true not only of writing.
Writers have notebooks, artists use sketchbooks and they too are for recording people, places, events and ideas.
It is the impulse to make sense of their surroundings and by extension their own lives that marks out the best of them.
Many of us find the camera phone a boon; references and memories on tap.
Yet a snapshot, with most of the decisions apart from composition now taken by the camera, preserves the image merely for an instant, while a drawing somehow embeds its subject within the time taken to make it, enriching the memory it records.
But surely a photograph is more accurate than any drawing?
It ain’t necessarily so.
As anyone who has ploughed through a family album will know, what is accurate is not always truthful. How many times do we reject a photograph saying, “Oh that one’s not a good likeness...” Really? That must mean a likeness lies somewhere beyond accurate representation. It must have something to do with capturing the animated spirit of the person or place.
And that is why artists are invaluable. At their best they can show us the truth.
Examples abound in a current show by the prolific illustrator Mercy Kagia, at the One-Off in Rosslyn, Nairobi, until November 24.
On the wall of the smaller Loft gallery are nine of Kagia’s sketchbooks covering her everyday recordings and also various spectacular journeys she has made, notably to South America, Australia and Japan.
Around each book, held open beneath protective acetate sheets, are clusters of digital prints—around 70 in all—of some of the drawings within the books.
Interspersed among them are a few large watercolours including, for example, one at 71cm by 101cm of a Japanese temple beneath schematic clouds. For me among the most appealing studies were those of sculptures, in a book kept especially for that purpose.
Drawing from the antique, as it is properly known, is a fundamental part of classical art training. The poses, tonal qualities and the sculptures’ textures, bronze compared with marble for instance, and a sense of their solidity all come into play, and these are skills at which Kagia excels.
It is an ability that stems from clarity of observation; the manipulation of line and tone can be taught.
Kagia’s drawing of the statue of a Roman emperor spread over two pages is a virtuoso display, as is her study of two wrestlers carved in marble with its masterful handling of tone.
Arranged in two vitrines in the centre of the gallery are original watercolour drawings that have a freshness even the finest prints struggle to capture.
They include what seemed to be most people’s favourite in this show—a perky black toucan squatting on a bough, its comical orange beak perfectly balanced by the weight of its body … no danger here of it toppling the bird tail over tip.
There are birds aplenty to enjoy, plus animals including a mob of kangaroos bounding around a cemetery in Perth, Australia (apparently the best place to see them; they are there to keep the grass down), hippos at Naivasha and crocodiles at Mamba Village in Mombasa.
One sketchbook is devoted to daily life in cafes, waiting rooms, on buses and trains and in the street, accompanied by a stern little reminder from the artist to herself to eschew the convenience of a camera phone and instead to take the time and trouble to draw.
Another book records in watercolours the mountainous scenery of Austria and Germany. This one was made of specially thick paper, to soak up the liberal amounts of water in the washes.
I admire the skill needed to control paint that wants to slide all over the surface but I prefer line, either thick and expressive or, as in Kagia’s study of a German street pianist, spare and dry. It carries with it a spontaneity that careful architectural drawings, for instance, can sometimes lack.
Kagia has the ability to switch from making a little do a lot to controlling floods of vibrant colour, seen to advantage in her view of a purple-headed dragon kite.
And she has another quality I admire too; the ability to know when to leave well alone. A small telling touch of colour here and there is often enough to bring a drawing to life … let the line do the work and allow a dab of colour to excite the eye.
What we are seeing is essentially a record, occasionally dazzling in its proficiency and adding veracity to each subject she tackles, but overall it does beg the question: “Brilliant yes, but where do we go from here?”
Or perhaps by writing it down — slowing the tumult of small daily experiences to a pace both she and we can understand—Kagia is holding a mirror to the mosaic of our own lives and thereby building a broader picture of what it is to be human.
In which case, this is enough.