Invisible riders of the black mamba

Friday October 11 2013

Solitude by Zihan Kassam. Photo/Frank Whalley

Solitude by Zihan Kassam. Photo/Frank Whalley 

By FRANK WHALLEY

Chris Froome, born and brought up in Karen, won this year’s Tour de France while his mentor, David Kinjah from Kikuyu, who once rode professionally for an Italian racing outfit, now runs the 20-strong Kenyan Safari Simbaz team.

But it is not the racing cyclists, hard of muscle and squeezed by lycra, who interest the artist and writer Zihan Kassam.

For her, the rhythm of life can be found in the ordinary riders of the black mambas that are everywhere and nowhere; invisible yet on every street, in all the towns and villages and being ridden with determination up every dusty hill.

With towering crates of bread, or milk or even live chickens strapped to their parcel shelves, these big, black bikes with the double crossbars are the lifeblood of the small businesses that make up so much of East African trade.

I tried to ride one once. No gears. I could hardly push the pedals round. Yet practiced riders seem to find it effortless. They rarely rise from the saddle even to get up a hill. It seems as easy for them as for the region’s, runners who entertain themselves when training by using cars to set the pace.

Kassam sees the cyclists as people who live, as she puts it, “between the old world and the new”.

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They are so common and so much wedded to the daily life of Nairobi, her home city, that they are almost invisible. Yet they are the ones who, not insulated by the comfort of a car, ride closer to life with its thrills and dangers and have become a litmus test of development. If it works for the humble cyclist, it will probably work for us. Kassam is offering some 27 paintings and constructions under the heading The Bicycle Man at the Talisman restaurant in Karen, until next Sunday (October 20).

The Talisman is a somewhat quirky venue, rambling between intimate dining areas and courtyards, and you take your chances with the lighting in spite of carefully directed spots.

Occasionally you have to peer between diners’ heads to glimpse the paintings. In this case, it is worth the effort. The paintings are strong and confident. Here is an artist with a firm grasp of her subject and something to say.

In the acrylics and charcoals, Kassam works with a broad brush, her technique of secondary glazing highlighting each bold stroke. This can be seen particularly in Solitude 1, where the cycle is cropped tightly, filling the frame and adding energy and dramatic impetus to the composition.

The charcoals are made with the full sweep of the arm (not tightly, from the wrist) and although the actual drawing is occasionally awkward, that is easily outweighed by the brio of her attack. Forest Gazer, with the wheels on slightly different planes, is typical.

Another fine painting is Comradeship, in which crimson, with touches of orange and yellow, is orchestrated with charcoal to produce a fantasia on the theme of two cyclists locked within the milieu of their own destiny. The cyclists are drawn with a sponge that cuts through paint and charcoal to embed the figures in the surface and lock them for eternity into a moment of shared truth.

This satisfying work is framed with strips of its own painted canvas, adding greater depth, as though glimpsing the scene through a one-way mirror or a darkened glass. The cyclists are unaware they are being observed, which makes the viewer a voyeur. Yet because we know we are looking at a work of art, not life, this artifice also creates an unspoken conspiracy of secret knowledge between the cyclists, the onlookers and the artist.

It is when Kassam turns to watercolours that her energy — and maybe her enthusiasm — seems to dissipate. One or two shimmer on the wall but generally they fail to match the force of her acrylics and charcoals without offering a different, subtler, interpretation.

Unfortunately, Kassam also shows a few brightly painted wood and metal constructions, again featuring bicycles, which to my eyes at least are examples of craftwork and best suited to an upmarket gift shop.

As well as painting, Kassam writes perceptively about art and artists for a Nairobi-based newspaper. I wonder what her final assessment of her own work would be?

And what is mine? I think Zihan Kassam is an artist of growing talent and awareness who would do well for now to focus on her strengths. They are considerable — and her acrylics and charcoals do her great credit.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]