GALLERIES: Eyes wide shut for study of night life

Thursday October 10 2019

Diva by Thom Ogonga. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


Printing is one of the oldest forms of art.

Hands shown on rock faces and the walls of caves either as stencils or positive prints bear witness to that. Some are around 40,000 years old.

Nowadays artists love print for its process and purity, and the methods are many, producing almost infinite varieties of line and form; whether with the boldness of wood and linocuts, monoprints and silkscreens, or the delicacy offered by etching and lithography.

The effects can be subtle or dramatic and this is well demonstrated at a current exhibition devoted to prints, at the One-Off art gallery in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi.

It highlights this gallery’s trend towards exhibitions that explore the varieties of one discipline.

They began in August last year with Line, focused on drawing, followed by the continuing blockbuster of sculpture which spread throughout the galleries, the new sculpture garden and the One-Off’s satellite space at the nearby Rosslyn Riviera Mall.


Now we have an exhibition devoted to prints.

The main show in the premier space, the new Stables gallery, is of 16 woodcuts by Thom Ogonga, who also curated the adjoining exhibition of 27 prints by 14 artists in the Loft (for future review).

Called Village Gentrification Ogonga’s show continues his examination of peri-urban nightlife; the places that amplify the beat of the city as it spreads ever outwards into villages that began as small coffee collection hubs but have now grown into townships, with their own towering apartment blocks, shopping centres and, yes, pubs, clubs and dirty dives.

Ogonga, hard at work most nights, has taken on a tough job but, as they say, someone has to do it.

The first thing you notice about his woodcuts is their size. Big. An average of around 100 x 140cm apiece.

The second is that all the characters in them have their eyes closed, reduced to sensuous half-moon lines.

And that is a pity. Surely an artist of Ogonga’s ability could manage an open eye or two …. and in any case if eyes are the windows to the soul, he risks leaving his woodcuts soulless.

It is just possible that everyone he draws are so spaced out on drink and drugs that their eyes really are closed, but in a crowded pub people with eyes tight shut are likely to crash into each other, the tables, and the walls.

Perhaps they do, although there is no evidence of that here.

Ogonga makes up for closed eyes with huge thighs. Women with curved lips and voluptuous bodies hug, sway and totter across his prints while the predatory men slouch lean and mean as gunslingers.

They would survey the scene with world-weary glances, except they too have closed eyes.

This artist draws people with their places indicated only as background props (a bar, a couch, a table with glasses); thus following in the distinguished footprints of Toulouse Lautrec; and as far as the satirical genre goes, William Hogarth too.

Another notable thing about these woodcuts is their Oriental sense of space.

Ogonga’s placing of his characters is seen at its finest in Diva — the biggest print in this exhibition at 144 x136.5cm — that shows a nightclub queen tossing her hair while turning towards a village woman walking with a heavy load.

Idle pleasure versus honest toil: the contrast is clear, the composition exquisite.

Ogonga, like his friends Peterson Kamwathi and Muraguri, makes very large artwork in a very small studio. How I do not know, but it points to highly organised minds and ruthless self-discipline.

Ogonga’s Ten (104 x 142cm) is another beautifully composed print, showing a couple at the table with a third man sat languidly nearby. A woman reclines on a sofa below. What is their relationship, if any? This tension between the figures (emotional as well as compositional) is one of the things that make Ogonga’s work, like people watching itself, so rewarding.

Then there is the Untitled standing woman, printed white on black paper that achieves a Matisse-like economy of line, and a study of a seated man, the louche dilettante Kamotho with his shoelaces undone.

Four prints in the corridor notable for their sudden shock of colour were made in 2002-3 during a workshop given by the Namibian printmaker Ndasnunye Shikongeni.

Three of the black and white prints are hung alongside the blocks from which they were made. Instead of cancelling or destroying them to ensure the integrity of his small editions (mostly just two prints plus whatever state and artist’s proofs were pulled) Ogonga has offered them for sale.

In the case of multicolour woodcuts that is fine; the prints cannot be reproduced in their final state because of the progressive cutting of the block.

But with Ogonga’s black and white woodcuts there is little except moral probity to stop a sneaky buyer printing off as many as needed to supply the market.

Risky, I’d say … but there again, it’s not my call.