Dark thoughts in the dead of night

Friday January 10 2014

Sentiment Of The Flesh by Beatrice Wanjiku. Photo/Frank Whalley

We all have desperate thoughts in the dead of night. But few of us express them so succinctly as the painter Francisco de Goya.

Around 1820, towards the end of his life, the great Spanish romantic produced a series of pictures so nightmarish they became known as the Black Paintings.

Completed in oils on the walls of his home, they include scenes of castration and death and were a private evocation of his terror.

The witches sabbath, demons, grotesques…. one of the best known of them, Saturn Devouring His Son shows a giant tearing at the flesh of a man.

It is said they were Goya’s reaction to the horrors of Napoleon’s invasion of his country.

The giants, which also appear on canvas, in his sketchbooks and on prints, were said to represent the arrogance of the Spanish King Fernando Vll, while other figures stood for a listless aristocracy and a passive, exploited peasantry.


Whatever they stood for and whatever drove him to make these pictures, they have become a metaphor for all our fears.

It is not uncommon for artists to deal with their demons in paint.

Think of Goya and think too of Francis Bacon whose entire canon seems to be one long process of exorcism.

Closer to home, look at the recent work of Beatrice Wanjiku. We know her for paintings dealing with transition — her examination of birth, life and death; the stuff of art. In her more recent series, Wanjiku appears to be exploring the depths of her soul.

Called Sentiment of the Flesh and Strangeness of my Madness, the paintings are among the most exciting works I have seen for some time.

In these lyrical pictures, dark figures loom like Goya’s giants; their gaping mouths with piranha teeth glitter like Bacon’s apparitions.

These pictures are, I believe, a courageous attempt to deal with her mother’s death, of which Wanjiku spoke movingly at a recent arts forum.

This investigation of personal grief and through that an exploration of her own mortality — and ours — is so compelling that it confirms Wanjiku’s quiet presence in the first rank of East African artists.

Paintings from these series can be seen at the One-Off Gallery in Nairobi’s Rosslyn estate in a mixed exhibition, until January 25, and then again at the One-Off in her forthcoming solo show in March.

In fact, excellence currently abounds at the One-Off with keynote works by, among others, Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi, Ehoodi Kichape and Shabu Mwangi.

Kamwathi is showing several charcoal drawings from his Contrails series — sheep in a landscape with sinister jet trails streaking the sky — plus a 24-second video loop called Ambivalent, condemning the ivory trade.

It shows a hand drawn elephant and her baby plodding right to left, next to a series of photographs of pieces of antique tribal art made from ivory. The point of cause and effect is elegantly made, while the title implies regret that such fine art should owe its genesis to slaughter.

The video is on DVD in a limited edition of three.

Richard Kimathi shows three cloth montages called Glory Days, each of some 35 cut-out elephants. In the final panel of the triptych, the elephants are upside down or on their sides, bloodstains on their bodies. Dead, every one. Another simple and powerful statement on behalf of our vanishing wildlife.

Ehoodi Kichape offers several typical paintings of urban chaos, including It’s a Beautiful Day, an ironic take on one of his grinning heads, set this time against an idyllic blue sky with white patches to represent the scudding clouds.

There is a large charcoal of seven chickens roosting in a row by Florence Wangui, and from several works by Shabu Mwangi what took my eye were two small paintings that were a tender evocation of a past relationship — Waiting, which shows a heavily pregnant woman reclining on a couch and New Born, a baby painted ghostly white with its uncomprehending parents.

Catering for a more popular taste in the downstairs gallery are animal paintings by Kivuthi Mbuno, Timothy Brooke and Elijah Ooko, and carvings and woodblocks by Chelenge van Rampelberg.

From this New Year feast, which dishes nourished the most?

They have to be Kamwathi’s poignant video and Wanjiku’s honest examination of personal grief — edgy and discomforting, yet so forensic that it becomes a universal cry.