Artist and gallery owner Shine Tani had a great idea for putting together an exhibition that would take him through the festive season.
Show them the usual stuff for a change.
And it was such a winner that it is still on now, even as needles from the Christmas tree gather in sweet smelling heaps on the floor and the decorations start to sag.
Shine’s big idea was to take around 70 paintings from his stock and give them a festive airing on the walls, where they were designed to be seen in the first place.
The trouble is, with literally thousands of paintings in his barn of a gallery, at Banana Hill to the west of Nairobi, and a rota of exhibitions booked well in advance, not a lot of his stock gets a public airing, except for those enthusiasts who habitually hunt for bargains they find propped against the walls and in the storerooms’ racks.
But thanks to the Big Idea, from early last month and still going strong, a mixed show of work by some 30 artists from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda has been lining the walls of the main gallery.
With them came the awkward question I often have to ask myself—was I looking at paintings or pictures?
I was told off, years ago, for referring to ‘pictures’ when writing about art.
Pictures, I was informed, were purely for decoration and lacked intellectual heft. Simple if pleasant enough they would fill a gap on the wall, cover a damp patch and appeal to auntie when she came to call.
They were, literally, beneath notice.
Paintings were far more serious things.
They had Purpose, dealing with weighty issues like the Battle of Life, Reasons for Being, Fighting All Ills; even (and more inward looking) the Purpose of Art itself.
Along the way, they and others like them projected the power of their subjects and owners, promoted a religion, conveyed a likeness to a prospective husband or wife; and so it went on.
It struck me then that the pictures/paintings trope is a cavalier and simplistic, if handy, categorisation.
What is wrong with decoration and pleasure? Where is the harm in gazing at an idealised view of a lake and forgetting for a moment that the credit card is overdue and the car needs tyres?
I have seen many pictures by painters of amazing skill and great paintings made by people with hardly any technical ability.
Fame is no guarantee of excellence, either. Monet among many others from the sacred canon of art history turned out pictures and paintings with equal aplomb.
Which leaves us where?
The distinction generally offers “pictures” as a term of abuse; a sneer to define poor painting, bad drawing, a weak palette and so on. Potboilers at best.
Shelf life is a factor too, in that pictures quickly pall while paintings (read also drawings, prints, sculptures) live forever; gifts that keep on giving.
However, appreciation of a good work can take time; it is a slow burn as the piece develops within your psyche and finally comes out to meet you.
As the sculptor Antony Gormley put it recently, “Art is useless if it doesn’t in some way energise your life.”
It is for you to decide whether you are looking at pictures or paintings and the current show at Banana Hill provides plenty of opportunity for that entertaining exercise.
Prominent on one wall is a township scene called Country Bus Station by Leonard Ngure, pupil of the much-lauded Bertiers. There are several Ngure's still in the racks as well and they all share a Hogarthian focus on the daily tumult of living...matatus jam together, crowds tumble, ebb and flow and the arena in which they work and play is bounded by hotels, shops, pubs and clubs while the skies are filled with helicopters and planes...daily life laid out for inspection.
Ngure’s work is raucous, garish as a children’s colouring book and great fun, with little of the pretension and none of the misogyny I find in Bertier’s work.
Quirky pieces abound here with offerings from Kaspa, Julius Kimemia and Peter Kibunja, all at their Marmite (love it or hate it) best.
Then there are the quiet landscapes of the Kenyan Coster Ojwang’ and from Uganda the well schooled realism of David Kigozi, Jjukko Hoods and Ibrahim Mwanga with his three small portraits of children. Tuition tells.
Haji Chilonga is a highly capable Tanzanian reliable in his depiction of street life while his countryman Stamili Sayuki continues to copy George Lilanga; an artist so distinctive that people emulate him at their peril.
Rahab Shine’s landscapes, thick with paint, are always worth a look—there was a particularly good group of three small ones, all untitled, that took my eye—while commanding one end of the gallery was a large and typical Wanyu Brush, paint flailed onto the canvas in the way that made his reputation as one of the masters of the First Generation of Kenyan artists.
All those and still some 50 works by more than 20 other artists to see.