GALLERIES: How art helped to banish the blues...

Sunday March 1 2020

Book jacket by Asaph Macua.

Book jacket by Asaph Macua. The artist has cut the bottom part off the book jacket but it’s no big deal. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

FRANK WHALLEY
By FRANK WHALLEY
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Sell the sizzle not the sausage is an adage beloved by advertising agencies everywhere.

The Watatu Gallery under Ruth Schaffner was particularly good at this. An expert saleswoman, she ensured most of her painters had a stunning story to entice the viewers.

The camp cook who took up painting at his employer’s behest and, good heavens, turned out to be a genius; the teacher who gave up his job to become a painter and was called insane by his neighbours, became a success and then in defiance changed his name to Sane etc. etc. etc.

And just as sausages tempt my taste buds, so gallery-goers practically fought each other over the crisp white wine and canapés at Watatu openings to buy the paintings of Kenya’s First Generation artists.

They took the sizzle home and ended up loving the sausage too.

But nowadays a less flamboyant pitch holds sway and collectors tend to examine their potential purchases with a greater regard to the art than the story that surrounds it.

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A harsher reality prevails in a Net-savvy, international marketplace.

Yet there is still a place for someone to tell a story of bravery and perseverance, for the National Museums of Kenya has devoted the Creativity Gallery in its main buildings on Nairobi’s Museum Hill to an exhibition by Asaph Ng’ethe Macua.

An artist who found employment with Kenyan publishing parastatals, his has not been an easy life, once confined to hospital for almost five years and living with only one lung since 1959.

In spite of ill health, he fought his way into the famed Alliance High School and then on to Makerere where he was taught art by Margaret Trowell.

Due to celebrate his 90th birthday in October this year, he recently published his autobiography and the museum rallied round by helping to promote it, giving him a retrospective of his artistic output from 1949.

The exhibition takes its title from his book, From Misery to Joy, a Journey of Endurance.

Its aim, we are told, is to trace the “history of contemporary art in Kenya through the art of Asaph Ng’ethe Macua.”

It seems odd to offer the work of just one artist as indicative of such a rich continuum. The artists were — and are —so different.

Nonetheless this exhibition of 46 paintings, drawings, posters and prints is a telling tribute to the triumph of will over adversity, to persistence and courage as much as an exposition of artistic achievement.

Interestingly, the further back you go into Macua’s oeuvre the better it gets. When suffering most he seems to have made his finest work.

It is arranged under five sections: Early Life, Daily Life, Culture, Awareness and Spirituality.

Early Life includes two fine charcoal studies, one a self-portrait, the other of a man sweeping. They are incisive, strong and show a sensitivity to line and form found infrequently in the rest of the exhibition.

He is good at catching a likeness, with a model or photograph before him, as shown in his full length portrait of President Moi.

What is clear however is that Macua possesses a robust feeling for design. This is seen at its best in his commercial work, in the section called Awareness, particularly in a book jacket called Road Safety From Brakes and also in a black and orange roundel (in Culture) that shows people attacking a group of women. It is unlabelled but hung near a painting called Genocide, so it is tempting to assume they are related.

Culture also includes a number of gouache paintings; of people drinking tea, making beer, weaving baskets and, delightfully, trapping moles, while Awareness is mostly of his graphic work (including the Safety book jacket) which as well as a nimbly executed pen and ink cartoon from art school, made in 1954, showcases a sermonising poster called Unity in Strength, pointing out the need to combat a range of vices painted on a tree. They include Laziness, Greed and Crime and wananchi are shown eagerly pulling on a rope to uproot the tree.

These were different, simpler times, and this is demonstrated too in Spirituality where a number of events from the Bible are retold with naïve charm.

As chief artist with the East African Literature Bureau and then the Kenya Literature Bureau, Macua was embedded in the State machinery of his day and, walking around this exhibition, I did wonder how many other parastatal artists were out there, unpublicised, and largely unknown. Tracking them down and exhibiting their work could be an interesting task for a rainy day.

If the museum really wishes to trace the history of contemporary art in Kenya — presumably one of the main functions of an endlessly mooted national gallery — then all the First Generation artists, good, bad and indifferent, should take their place in its hallowed halls.

Macua must be in there too, as an inspirational example of what one dedicated artist was capable of producing, in spite of the many challenges that dogged his path.