From Kenya to the US with love

Friday August 22 2014

Left, Ni Hoja, Lakini Si Hoja by Patrick Kinuthia and right, detail from the protest drawing by Peterson Kamwathi. PHOTOS | COURTESY

Congratulations to Patrick Kinuthia whose painting of a couple with mama mboga was presented by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to former US president George W. Bush.

The gift was big news, and it was good to see an East African artist making both a major sale — reported at around $3,500 — and receiving recognition at such a level. Congratulations too to William Ndwiga of the Little Art Gallery who brokered the deal.

Ndwiga is now opening negotiations with Kenyan embassies to promote the country’s artists through a series of exhibitions. And that has to be excellent news.

Hopefully they will produce further sales and showcase the vibrancy and quality of the East African art scene.

I sense however that good though it was to see Kenyan art put so firmly on the map, it could have been even better.

Was the gift of the Kinuthia to Mr Bush in fact an opportunity missed? The problem for me is that the work was at best a stereotype of what the West expects of African painting — a market scene — and at worst a dance for the tourists.


There is, it is true, a certain thudding political correctness about the picture that should surely appeal to the West.

The man at the centre of the painting, reproduced here, is carrying a bag emblazoned with the Aids ribbon logo. He has come with his partner from a VCT and is awaiting the result. The mama mboga are sympathetic and the picture sends a message about the need for acceptance and support from the family and society at large about HIV/Aids.

Eradicating the virus is a pet cause of Mr Bush’s, and Kenya was happy to salute his efforts.

The painting, acrylic on canvas and measuring 100cm by 150cm, is called Ni Hoja, Lakini Si Hoja (It’s an issue, but not an issue) but its message is superficial.

If the ribbon had pink instead of red, the painting would have been about breast cancer. Had it been yellow it would have been a call for the troops to come back from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever.

The picture is a vehicle for whatever cause you may want to promote, and by simply changing the logo on the paper bag it could be tailored for any buyer.
True commercial art.

Another point is that this picture, surprisingly for Kinuthia, appears to be not all that well realised. To be fair, I have seen it only in reproduction but the palette, for instance, seems unnaturally harsh, garish even — although that could be the fault of the print supplied by the agent, not the original.

However the figures are stiff, immobile. The legs of the man’s partner appear two-dimensional and the expressions on the faces of the mama mboga look rather wooden.

I have seen much livelier work by this artist.

Leaving aside the technicalities of the painting (while remembering that the brief was for a work of museum quality) we are left with an adaptable picture that has had grafted onto it a politically correct — and in this case flattering — message, rather than a work that is inherently polemic.

In contrast, we had the site-specific drawings by the Kenyan Peterson Kamwathi exhibited at the Frost Museum in Miami.

They were a series of life-sized charcoal drawings of protesters holding up banners and placards, seen from the back. Drawn as individual figures, cut out and positioned by the artist, they invited viewers to join the protest… the fact of their standing there looking at the assemblage and facing the same way meant they were part of the crowd.

And because the viewers could see only the backs of the placards the messages could not be tampered with to change the meaning. They were metaphors for universal protest; they championed every cause.

It was a simple, clever idea that deserved the praise it received from visitors, curators and critics.

So do we admire a timely gift that flatters its recipient and brings credit to the donor, as well as opening the door to other exhibitions with the possibility of further sales?

We do.

But would we have preferred a work of art that raises awareness of the continuing struggle faced in this region for basics that the West takes for granted?

We would.

I feel confident Mr Bush would have been open to such a gift. After all, he is himself an enthusiastic amateur painter.

Kamwathi is only one example of an East African artist with something to say; whose work is intrinsically about the issues confronting East Africa, causes in addition to HIV/Aids that may well have been brought to Mr Bush’s attention during his presidency — governance, corruption, sexuality, health, education, terrorism, the IDPs, the need for shelter and fresh water.

Such matters form the agenda of the inaugural Kampala Biennale, which continues apace until the end of August. Five Kenyans are exhibiting there under the theme Progressive Africa: Yassir Ali, Samuel Githui, Justus Kyalo, Brian Omolo and Michael Soi.

Pictures subtle but sharp; art that beguiles yet bites.