Increasingly East Africa is becoming a magnet for world-class artists.
Nairobi is currently hosting two of them, for as well as the virtuosity of the Canadian-Brit Lisa Milroy at the One-Off, the acclaimed German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is, until May 11, showing at two sites within the city; the GoDown and the Circle Art Gallery.
But while Kenya is alive to visionaries from the West, Uganda is taking a more homegrown approach with a host of stellar African artists running teaching studios to underpin its upcoming third Kampala Biennale.
In Kenya, African artists are competing head to head with their Western counterparts, as can be seen to great effect in two exhibitions held alongside that of Lisa Milroy.
Xavier Verhoest (born in the DRC) has a room to himself in the new Stables Annex at the One-Off, while, in what used to be the main gallery, work by 11 Kenyans dazzles the eye.
In a small exhibition called Attraversare (Italian for “to cross”) Verhoest focuses on the migrant crisis following visits to Turkey, Italy, Syria, South Sudan and Somalia.
He offers a subtle interplay of imagery; always elegant, often initially mystifying but ultimately rewarding. Verhoest’s impressions conflate and melt before us as he strives to create an internal dialogue with events often thrust brutally before him.
Two other mixed media works by him hang separately in what used to be the main gallery, but there it is paintings by Beatrice Wanjiku and Richard Kimathi, plus a delicately nuanced charcoal and crayon drawing by Peterson Kamwathi, that captivate.
Kamwathi’s offering is more directly autobiographical than usual.
It shows six figures, all of the artist in a time elapsed sequence, trudging along the top of a fence. Wearing his iconic backpack, he walks head down against a rain of ash, tracking a giant Trumpian wall that zigzags across the paper.
It is a metaphor for the struggle the artist faces in his constant foraging into the unknown, heading from point to point and encountering fences and barriers he must surmount, while intertwined with this personal search is the plight of migrants who are also searching; in their case for a new life with freedom from their current social and political constraints.
The ash, meanwhile, can be read as the fallout of hopes and dreams springing from some cataclysmic violence; a volcanic eruption for example, or in the case of the migrants, a war that has destroyed their homes, societies and immediate futures.
Called Melilla alluding to the Spanish enclave in North Africa which has become a lodestar for migrants, this drawing, elegantly realised in charcoal and shimmering with pinks, lemons, greys and a delicate lime green, all highlighted by the speckles of white ash, is a tour de force and is, I think, in its purely formal qualities among the most beautiful and poignant of Kamwathi’s recent works.
Next to it, Wanjiku shows two paintings from her Savages series, which project the theme that as our own worst enemy we devour ourselves.
In one of the paintings the head is upside down. When Wanjiku first painted it the right way up, it failed to express her ideas sufficiently but upside down it seemed to articulate her intentions more clearly. So upside down it stays.
And next to them, Kimathi’s Body and Spirit shows a towering central figure, perhaps a teenager, flanked by eight others who barely reach his waist, all with their arms upraised.
As in much of this artist’s latest work, the figures are cut from canvas and glued to the background, creating both an added depth and a separation from the artificiality of the conventional picture plane.
This is a work about awakening sexuality and the power and relevance of peer group knowledge, in which the main figure is the leader with the others his acolytes, anxious to follow his example.
These three artists are in excellent company too.
Fine work includes an economical oil of lounging lions by Timothy Brooke, a visceral study of a cow’s head by Ehoodi Kichapi, and a stunning sequenced study of a chicken taking flight by Florence Wangui.
Other good things are two large paintings by Peter Ngugi that suggest celebrations and protests share heightened emotions, a cheery painting of two sisters by James Mbuthia, a hammered steel relief of two women by Harrison Mburu, a carving of a dog’s head by Chelenge, a luminous painting of a woman with a child on her lap by Olivia Pendergast, and a couple of oils on canvas by Anthony Okello that reference the artist’s attempts to fit in with society and create a home.
It is probably entirely wrong, vulgar even, to see the presence of Western artists alongside the works of Africans as some sort of competition.
After all, each canon borrows enthusiastically from the other and has done so since the early 1900s when African tribal pieces began to be seen in Parisian showrooms.
But if one were to dare suggest anything like a competitive element, then for sure the Africans are giving every bit as good as they get.
And then some.