GALLERIES: Perspectives of truth as repetition rules

Wednesday May 13 2020

'Untitled' by Lemek Tompoika. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


The virus continues to ravage the regional art scene… the closure of gallery spaces and the migration to exhibitions online by mobile phone and on social media, more and more artists working from home and, inevitably, it has become the subject of artworks.

But amid the doom and gloom, one of the smaller art centres in Nairobi is thriving.

It is the Kobo Trust at Riara Road, Dagoretti, where three of the six artists with spaces there are still in their studios working as hard as ever.

They are Onyis Martin, Lemek Tompoika and Paul Njihia.

An open studio day planned for last month had to be postponed because of the ban on public gatherings, so the three have used the breathing space to consider the direction of their continuing practice.

Determined to see how their new work looked on the wall, they have hung a selection of their drawings and paintings and let visitors in so they can gauge a public reaction.


The rules of course are as elsewhere; no more than four people at a time, sanitising their hands on entry and upon leaving, maintaining social distance and wearing masks.


And it is the obligatory masks that have fascinated Onyis Martin (and many other artists as we shall soon see, I suspect). He has a created an installation of 120 small ink wash drawings (each 25cm by 17cm) of people in masks, plus a further 10 larger drawings (55cm by 8cm) to investigate how repetition leads to a new normality.

These drawings investigate the many ways of covering the face, including ski masks, the niqab (Muslim veil), scarves, visors and the more common takes on typical medical masks; blue and white, and those colourful, patterned ones made locally from plastics, leather, kitenges and khangas.

Skin too is a covering, Martin points out, and one of his elegantly spare drawings is of a skull... the face uncovered and stripped, literally, to the bone.

“Masks have become the new normal,” he said, “and I hope these drawings bring home the power of repetition.”

As though to prove the point, people viewing them will themselves be wearing masks and the drawings and their audience together raise questions about our various layers of identity.

So keen on the subject has Martin become that he has started to collect the various types of masks currently being worn that he intends to use in future artworks. One of many such collections, I have no doubt.


For his colleague Lemek Tompoika, the pandemic dovetails neatly with his own interest in differing perspectives of truth.

He reaches into his Maasai culture to observe that truth is an abstract concept, and has created a group of three large abstract charcoal and pastel paintings (around 150cm by 200cm) that examine this belief through an interpretation of the two expressions of the Maasai god, Enkai; at once kind and merciful, portrayed in black, and malevolent and vengeful, shown in red.

His paintings are predominantly black, which is good news for us, although each bears an encroaching blush of red.

Regarding the pandemic, Tompoika points to the dichotomy of regularly challenged death and recovery rates, presented as truth in some countries yet seen upon investigation to be at best misleading, failing as they do to include deaths in care homes in addition to hospitals and with deaths that could be from other causes included in the grim totals.

Also keenly interested in truth is the third artist in this trio, Paul Njihia, best known for his cleanly executed paintings of people from an aerial viewpoint.

His three paintings (again on a large scale, the biggest being 130cm by 210cm) are of children either in class or the playground.

They continue Njihia’s attack on a school system that he says emphasises high marks at the expense of the students’ ethical and moral development.

“It is a system,” he said, “that does not care what sort of people it produces so long as they get good marks.”

This he exemplifies in one of the paintings that shows an attentive and sharply defined group of children sat before a teacher painted faintly in the background. His presence, the artist is telling us, is almost irrelevant to the students’ growth as well rounded future citizens.

Scale, texture and the emotional heft of works seen live cannot be captured on a website, and that makes a visit to Kobo well worthwhile... but do remember to take your mask.