GALLERIES: For Soi, women are always winners…

Saturday January 11 2020

'Monday Morning II' by Michael Soi.

'Monday Morning II' by Michael Soi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

FRANK WHALLEY
By FRANK WHALLEY
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Bright colours, bold outlines, a dash of sauce and wide-eyed looks of surprise...yes, it is the latest exhibition of paintings by one of the region’s best-loved artists, Michael Soi.

Chronicling us at work and play (mostly play) Soi uses a deceptively simple cartoon-like style to satirise city life.

Whether it is dodgy preachers, hedonistic head teachers, clubs and their customers and Les Girls—always Les Girls—Soi presents a package that while easy to digest has serious undercurrents, with political corruption and sexual, social and clerical hypocrisy being high on his list of targets.

As the comedian Peter Sellers (the original Inspector Clouseau) said in a brilliant parody of art-critic speak, “His genius bursts the bounds of mere canvas”.

And indeed it does. For as well as getting Soi in acrylics on canvas, he now comes on shopping bags, carrier bags, wallets, purses and even as fridge magnets and button badges.

For Soi has become a cult figure and has developed a formidable international presence, been interviewed by the BBC, and even been banned for being too explicit by some curator at the National Museums of Kenya. And it is hard to think of a higher accolade than that.

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Before long, theses will be written about the man and his works, his world view and his place in art history as a modern Hogarth or Rowlandson; a sharp eyed observer of our times and mores.

Heavens, if he were Japanese he would be declared a National Treasure.

But do not let his ubiquity fool you.

For beneath the smiles, the laughter and the shocked looks of most of his characters lies the cynicism of a seasoned people-watcher, and while most of his works are superficially gentle, you can be caught out by the Soi stiletto slipping under the ribs.

Typical of the latter was the dark humour of his previous exhibition at the Circle art gallery in Lavington, Nairobi, China Loves Africa, which showed a smiling Xi Jinping presiding over the acquisition of the continent’s resources. Including its women.

His current exhibition at the Circle is superficially gentler and with a wider reach. Called Heaven Can Wait, it sees him maintaining the quality—both formal and conceptual—of his output while bringing a few delicious contemporary insights to the table.

For instance, several paintings play on our latest narcissistic obsession, the selfie, while backgrounds based on the complex lines of computer circuit boards have spread to include clothing and jewellery.

Les Girls are there in plenty—knowing, pouting, saucy, half naked, wide-eyed and winning—and their half drunk, groping and hopeful clients abound too.

In Heaven Can Wait II, one of them is posing for a selfie with one girl while slyly goosing another.

Fat cat businessmen, presidents, politicians, the police, NGO workers and the Chinese have all had their turn on the rack. In this show we are offered another authority figure to pillory, for now the head teacher is in Soi’s sights.

In Mr Headmaster he is carried still drunk and clutching a bottle of beer, on the back of his wife. Children in uniform, presumably his pupils, look on amazed. It is the woman who is in charge.

In fact, the often-stated view of Soi as a misogynist who demeans women is I believe wholly wrong. (Cue another thesis.)

'Selfie II' by Michael Soi. PHOTO | FRANK
'Selfie II' by Michael Soi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

His paintings strike me as a hymn to the strength, subtlety, intelligence and forbearance of women.

Yes, they are often shown suffering the attentions of lecherous men but they appear to triumph in their endless transactions—in the paintings at least—and view the business with patience, tolerance and the certainty that they will come out ahead of the game.

My favourite piece in this entertaining exhibition of 18 works was called simply Married People.

It shows a bearded man on the lavatory, pants around his ankles, pulling at the toilet roll while looking in wonder at a voluptuous woman in the foreground who, wearing just bra and pants, is shaving her armpit.

Is this just a snapshot of the familiarity and homely domesticity that exists in most marriages, or is it more?

The look of the man tells me that either this is a couple who have not been married very long and that such intimacies are still a novelty...or that they are indeed married, but maybe not to each other.

A couple clearly married for far longer feature in Monday Morning II, in which a poor old soak is being carted home in a wheelbarrow by his long suffering wife after a night on the tiles.

The wife, with a baby on her back, plods on...but as she endures the looks of surprise, pity and scorn that accompany her journey, there is a certain determination in her bearing and a glint in her eye.

Heaven Can Wait maybe—but heaven help him when she gets him home.