The life of Caravaggio appeals to those who believe artists and especially great ones, should be tempestuous, driven beings who sacrifice everything including their sanity for art.
In fact Caravaggio, arguably one of the greatest of all artists, was a murderous hooligan who instead of dying on the point of a sword (it was 1616, after all) succumbed to malaria aged just 38.
But even he had little on the lost artists of the Wajukuu art centre in Lunga Lunga, part of Nairobi’s sprawling Mukuru slum.
The workshop started 10 years ago with 18 members but now has 13. And the missing five? They were all murdered, according to Wajukuu’s founder Shabu Mwangi. One was shot dead by the police as an escapee and the other four were criminals killed on their way to committing a robbery, he said.
A risky business, art.
In spite of its harrowing rate of attrition, Wajukuu is now celebrating its 10th anniversary with an exhibition at one of the city’s most prestigious galleries, The Circle, in Lavington.
And as Mwangi told me, the centre’s greatest achievement is simply for most of its members to have survived.
“Just being alive and seeing each other in the studio is the best thing,” he explained. “We started with a dream but it has become reality and now we have a place where we feel safe and can express ourselves without fear.”
Mwangi and two other early members, the cousins Ngugi and Joseph Waweru, are showing some 23 works at Circle; eight paintings each by Mwangi and Joseph Waweru, while Ngugi Waweru is offering four woodblock prints and three of the blocks.
Mwangi, as ever, is concerned with identity. From the outset he saw art as a way to highlight inequality and injustice meted out to disadvantaged members of his community, which begged the question, “Who are we and how and why do we differ from others?”
In these latest works, all completed this year, his brushwork has broadened and there is incidental pleasure to be had in his succulent pigment, lavished on the canvas as though in celebration of its plasticity.
Person without identity
His figures too — always ciphers — have expanded to become even more lacking in specific identity (the very point he is making here) while retaining their trademark claw-like hands and feet and sharp, glittering teeth. These are metaphors for the lost, the damned and the unknowing; often clutching each other in a desperate bid for comfort and the hope of survival.
One of the most effective paintings is also one of the smallest. Unhelpfully called Untitled, it is just 30.5cm by 30.5cm and one of four marked NFS; destined, I was told, for the 1:54 art fair in London later this year.
It features around 50 short vertical marks, each a person without identity, above a loosely drawn white hut; a home for lost souls; a place of shelter where those lacking identity can feel safe… and, I wondered, a possibly unintended allegory for the Wajukuu centre itself.
As always, Mwangi’s paintings are powerful and disturbing.
The woodcuts of Ngugi Waweru are also powerful, gaining presence from bold strokes and a strong sense of pattern. He is quick to acknowledge his debt to Peterson Kamwathi, who taught him woodblock printing during a series of workshops at Kuona Trust and the GoDown art centres in 2005.
The influence can be seen particularly in the figure drawing and dense, latticed backgrounds. The subject too, a condemnation of weapons and armed conflict, while echoed by many artists of this region, will also be familiar to enthusiasts for Kamwathi’s work.
Waweru handles it well.
His bandaged figures symbolise how we have become tied by familiarity to guns (yet the bandages are loose and flapping; a sign of hope?) while in the keynote print, Live Bullets II, it is significant that the figure is not actually holding the gun, prominent in red. However, it is near him and for his protection, which makes him complicit in any killings.
In addition to the prints, Waweru is offering three of the blocks used to produce them; rich and mellowed in tone.
These are in their final state, from which only monochrome prints can be taken, which explains perhaps the willingness of some artists — Denis Muraguri is another — to sell them off as works of art in themselves, confident no-one can ever pirate full colour prints from them.
The third surviving celebrant, Joseph Waweru, is showing eight paintings, all of which are formidably intricate and owe more than a passing nod to Shabu Mwangi’s uneasy figures.
So, a birthday exhibition by three parts of a demonstrably excellent art collective that has given hope and purpose to many young lives. And also, alas, has seen several snuffed out in short order — which adds some edge to another of Shabu’s wistful comments, “After 10 years, we never knew we’d still be here.”
Caravaggio would be proud of them.