GALLERIES: Egrets? I have a few - and a wire matatu

Saturday October 26 2019

'Study of Egrets' by Lincoln Mwangi.

'Study of Egrets' by Lincoln Mwangi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

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Heaven knows it is a bit rich for an art critic to complain about artists being pretentious but there we are.

Gleefully obscure is perhaps a better way of referring to the work currently on show in an exhibition by members of the Brush Tu collective of Nairobi.

No catalogue, not even a price list, with all references on small labels alongside each sculpture, photograph or painting, it is more a studio show than an exhibition.

Art is communication and if that fails, it fails—even allowing for the viewers’ responsibility to make an honest effort to read the message.

Of these 63 works by 10 artists the majority elude immediate understanding and most continue to remain unclear, even with intelligent guesswork.

Catalogue notes or artist’s statements would have helped. We should not need them, but when we do, we really need them.


The result is an exhibition not for the public but for the artists themselves; a smug, inward looking, self-indulgent exercise, displaying contempt for visitors. I doubt if this were deliberate, rather a lack of foresight and experience.

There are, however, happy exceptions. Prominent among them is a wire construction of a matatu suspended from the ceiling.

Made by Waweru Gichuhi and Lincoln Mwangi its name Wamwisho iende (one more passenger to go before vehicle leaves, or (only one seat left) explains it all.

Detail from 'Wamwisho iende' by Waweru Gichuhu
Detail from 'Wamwisho iende' by Waweru Gichuhu and Lincoln Mwangi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Sure enough, two-thirds of the way along the body is that single seat, as advertised by the cheerfully lying tout.

Pithy, relevant, witty, fun.

There are also a couple of paintings apiece by Michael Musyoka and Elias Mung’ora and two sculptures by Moira Bushkimani that are well executed and to the point.

Bushkimani’s take on fire, created from pieces of driftwood with beaded wires becoming the dancing flames, remain subtle and intelligent, while Michael Musyoka, one of the founders of Brush Tu, offers two large acrylics with his now familiar icons of tumbling striped figures bouncing around the canvas. Fall and the unending circle of Time Vlll speak for themselves.

So too do the paintings by Mung’ora, although his taxi scene boldly labelled at the bottom of the painting I.N.K. Taxi Number 1 Samuel (a reference known to him and his mates and maybe even Samuel but not to me) pointed towards the difficulties ahead.

Bushkimani is not immune. She exhibits around her fire sculptures, as though to warm them on the walls, nine photographs on canvas.

The abstract imagery is sharp and the colours harmonious; surely made with intent. But what was that intent, other than exercises in form and colour? It would have been good to know.

Nearby are a group of oil and charcoal drawings by Lincoln Mwangi...three sensitive studies of egrets—at last, something I could visually fasten onto—and better still three of goats plus a suite of three drawings each of Cassava Plant in Three Parts (you can see the cassava), Banana Plant in Three Parts (the plant is present) and Trespassing and Gathering (puzzling because one of the drawings is completely non-figurative.)

Distinctive stylisation

Clearly these have great significance to the artist and can be enjoyed purely for their formal skills but sharing their import might have added another dimension to the pleasure.

Those who admire Peteros Ndunde’s faceted faces will love the five drawings he shows here, this time of a faceted body and faceted hands and arms.
Why he goes in for this comic-book stylisation I am not sure and he does not tell, but at least it is distinctive.

Emmaus Kimani offers 10 photographs, I think of land and seascapes all called Home and Seaside Fantasies (1-10), while at the other end of the gallery Abdul Kipruto shows three tall sculptures in which objects trouvé—a broken radio and two small and wasted TV sets—stand like fruit on top of leafy steel stalks. Why?

Next to them he shows two silk-screen prints, of a Kenya Shilling and a bottle of Kenya Cane. They are called Elements of Decision l and Elements of Decision ll and that seems thoughtful and important but apart from their Warholesque associations of commonplace objects presented as fine art, what are they about?

Boniface Maina contributes five illustrations of fairy-tale figures with wild hair standing or seated among ruins.

And they could mean whatever you like.

Finally, Sebawali Sio with her glass-studded bust of a woman (and why has it been placed on a mirror?), two masks and a group of paintings from a series called Progression.

In these I liked the way the key parts of the face—eyebrows, eyes, nose and mouth — emerged from the densely patterned picture plane; mysterious yet somehow both questioning and commanding.

But what they mean, I cannot tell.

I am, however, reminded of a comment by my favourite sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro, who when asked what one of his abstract steel constructions meant, replied that he also did not know what his breakfast meant but he still enjoyed it.

So hopefully, enjoy the show.