Drawing the line at a naked truth

Friday August 10 2018

The Gold Cloak, by Sebawali Sio. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


Drawing is the basis of art. Line lies at the root of drawing. And underpinning line is repeatedly drawing the nude from life.

If you can draw the nude you can draw anything. The human body offers all the problems of form, weight and volume found also in landscape and still life.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem.

For, in Kenya at least, art is no longer an examinable subject in schools and drawing from life in colleges and universities is virtually non-existent. The resident life model at Kenyatta University, for example, now keeps her kit on due to what the university once called “ethical issues.”

It is understood that the KU students have since become dab hands at representing the triangular folds of clothing. Triangles are only occasionally encountered in nature and hardy at all in still life, apart from in tablecloths. A useful skill, no doubt.

Yet, in spite of this buffoonery, and wonderfully so, some very capable artists grace Kenya.


This is because they work with endless determination to hone their skills; by studying on the internet, by using the many self-help books on the market, by studying abroad and/or by taking the private lessons offered by such accomplished artists as Maral Bolouri, Mercy Kagia and Patrick Mukabi.

It is hugely to their credit that their persistence has paid off. And with sound drawing supporting them, Kenyan artists are continuing to make a mark on the international scene.

Martin Onyis, Lemek Tompoika, Longinos Nagila, Samuel Githui and Florence Wangui are recent additions to that roll call, while artists already regularly commanding a place at international fairs, museums and galleries include Peterson Kamwathi and Beatrice Wanjiku — their work reflecting the critical importance they place on draughtsmanship.

The evergreen Timothy Brooke puts a huge premium on it too, as his incisive paintings prove, while expat Kenyan Magdalene Odundo produces ceramics driven by confident drawing, and Wangechi Mutu’s huge reputation is enhanced by etchings of remarkable sensitivity.

It is fortunate then that at this critical time in the region’s artistic development, the artists Thom Ogonga and Jonathan Solanke Fraser have curated an exhibition devoted to a celebration and exploration of the fundamental importance of the line.

It is called simply Line, the Basic Element and is on at the One-Off in Rosslyn, Nairobi until August 21.

Line is the bedrock; the basis; the quintessential tool for art. It is also among the earliest, with charcoal and ochre being used for cave drawings by prehistoric man dating back at least 40,000 years.

Line, the Basic Element presents 37 works by 12 artists, many with no wider audience than their family and friends until now; their introduction as untested talents in one of Nairobi’s major galleries being much to the credit of the curators and gallery director Carol Lees.

The 37 pieces on show — drawings, prints and wall sculptures — split into three areas.

First come those that investigate the variety and tensions created from a single line, with paint, crayon, charcoal or pen and ink. Prominent among them are drawings and paintings by Patti Endo, Janice Iche, Mercy Kagia, Wanjohi Maina and Florence Wangui.

Then there are those who mass short, hatched lines into meandering ropes that outline and describe their subjects, or create tonal densities of light and shade… Jonathan Solanke Fraser, Peteros Ndunde, Sebawali Sio, David Thuku and Agnes Waruguru.

And then there are the artists who step outside the box with wire sculptures (Ndeithi Kariuki), inventive works of folded paper set against precise graphite grids (Longinos Nagila), and a wall hanging in which the lines are strings of beads looped on a background of cloth and plastic mesh (Agnes Waruguru, again.)

Difficult to pick favourites, particularly as newcomers are showing alongside relatively established artists, but I certainly commend co-curator Fraser for his bold use of negative space in a series of five charcoal drawings inspired by his family’s photo album, and Sio for her instinctively adroit compositions, particularly in her subtly coloured drawing The Gold Cloak.

Kagia, as always, describes the human figure with strong and eloquent use of conte crayon and wash, while Thuku’s line is the starting point for a group of four haunting silkscreen portraits that still nag at my memory.

For me the stars of the show are Nagila’s inventive 3-D paper constructions — something unexpected, new and exciting; founded on line and while pushing the definition to its limit, proving its essential importance.

But this is not a competition.

What this is, most of all, is a shout for the variety and beauty of line, a recognition of its fundamental significance — and an eloquent advertisement for the value of expert teaching of the basic element that underpins all art.