Hiding elephants behind stricken eyes

Friday September 14 2012

Village in Green by Geoffrey Mukasa. Photo/Frank Whalley

Village in Green by Geoffrey Mukasa. Photo/Frank Whalley 

By Frank Whalley

He died three years ago, aged only 56. And now his works hang darkly on the wall, speaking of some unbearable suffering.

Yet it is a tribute to the painter Geoffrey Mukasa that his pictures do not depress the viewer. Instead — and strangely — they uplift the spirit, as though their creation conquered his pain.

Mukasa, hailed by many as Uganda’s finest artist, was born in 1954, and as the grandson of Sir Apollo Kaggwe, the prime minister of Buganda, grew up in the Kabaka’s palace.

For more than 20 years he worked as a full time artist, exhibiting throughout the world paintings inspired by scenes and people in his home village, Munyonyo, now part of Kampala.

His works distilled the influences of many painters and through their examples he generated a style that became truly international.

His pictures would sit comfortably in any gallery specialising in modern art, whether in London, Paris or New York. And to those, you can add Bombay and Delhi too.

For Mukasa trained in India, in Lucknow, and among those whose work he admired to the point of assimilation was MF Husain, the eccentric modernist who claimed to have produced some 60,000 paintings. He died only last year, aged 96.

The influence of Husain, who adapted Cubism to his own fluent depictions of Indian epics, can be seen both in Mukasa’s subject matter and in his technique.

The favourite Indian subject of Lord Krishna playing the flute to his gopis, the cowherd girls, is compacted in Mukasa’s picture Music in the Night, in which two naked women sit side by side, one holding a flute to her lips.

Husain’s technique can be seen particularly in the careful delineation of the figures’ fingers and toes and an assured line that describes form clearly and with minimum fuss.

This picture can be seen with 25 other paintings, drawings and collages by the artist at the new Red Hill Art Gallery off Limuru Road to the west of Nairobi. The exhibition, which can be visited only at weekends, lasts until the end of this month.

To return to the European modernist mainstream, Georges Braque can be seen in Mukasa’s collage Still Life, a vase of flowers in which the perspective is fractured to create the wholeness of view that was the point of Cubism.

And surely Picasso, as in life, is everywhere… the strength of line and the confident compositions, although viewed through the lens of Mukasa his colours become more sombre and his faces are haunted, with not just sad, but stricken, eyes.

You can see them in nearly every picture, along with Mukasa’s trademark fish and roosters, but Woman with Lyre — a bravura piece of painting — is as good an example as any.

The artist lightened up a little in one of the best pictures in this exciting show: Village in Green. In it he was perhaps closest to his African roots, and conveys a sense that he speaks more with his own voice and a little less of his masters’.

Working from his heart he playfully hides a couple of elephants in the composition (and how, you might well ask, do you hide one elephant, let alone two?) as he manipulates a fresher palette with looser, more enticing brushwork.

This less studied approach beguiles. There is a sense that the artist has found himself, although those sad eyes remain.

Henri Matisse, with his fluid line and bright colours, is evident in a stunning collage of an odalisque. In it the woman lies on one hip, which thrusts the other into the air and offers a smooth and swooping outline from shoulder to thigh.

An intimate touch is provided by the teapot, cup and saucer on a table by her side… a domestic scene in which the model is elevated to the status of goddess.

I would love to have that picture on my wall, but at around $4,500 it will have to find another buyer.

You might think that Mukasa does not come cheaply. The largest pictures on show were priced at around $14,000. Yet is that so dear, really, bearing in mind the quality of the work?

And given that the man has died there will not be any more, allowing dealers to exercise their usual droit de seigneur over supply and demand.

In a top European gallery I would not be at all surprised to see Still Life, for example, importantly framed and well presented, offered at around $70,000-$100,000.

At Red Hill, as well as the pricey major works, it is possible, however, to buy a small ink drawing for around $200.

Why do I admire Mukasa while admitting he is heavily influenced by other more famous hands, yet decry those artists who similarly owe an obvious debt to the masters?

I suppose it is because Mukasa took their techniques and ways of seeing to forge a style of his own, marked for a start by a darker, more brooding palette (all his colours seem to have been mixed with black) and those desperate eyes, while others are content merely to pay ‘homage’ to their heroes.

Or, to put it in plain English, simply to copy them.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.

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