Islam recognised, celebrated

Sunday December 4 2011

(Left) Kadhi’s Court 1 by Peterson Kamwathi and

(Left) Kadhi’s Court 1 by Peterson Kamwathi and Muslim Girl by Chege Gitura. Pictures: Frank Whalley 

By Frank Whalley

If you want to see just how good East African art can be, look at the ravishing charcoal and crayon drawing by Peterson Kamwathi of Kenya.

It is called Kadhi’s Court 1 and sold at auction through Sotheby’s New York earlier this month to raise funds for the Africa Foundation.

The drawing, which measures 5ft by 4ft, is one of Kamwathi’s Constitution series which deals with the provisions of the new dispensation. Others in the series have clauses from the Constitution — about the right to life and the family, for example — literally written across the drawing either before or behind the figures.

In this picture, one of the first in the series, the single petitioner, clad in a kanzu that glows in the half light, stands with his back towards us before a screen on which is a pattern of rich, red crosses — a Muslim facing the archetypical symbol of Christianity.

To my mind the drawing represents the singular position of the Muslim court for family law, created against a backdrop of a Constitution that is for all Kenyans without discrimination and irrespective of their colour, race or creed.

The picture therefore represents the welcome position that Islam is being recognised and celebrated within a predominantly Christian state. The two belief systems are presented as together and in harmony. Tuko pamoja.

There are many masterful touches that enhance the beauty of this drawing — its restraint for a start… only charcoal plus those discreet touches of cadmium red.

Then look at the way the artist has represented the light on the back of the neck, the treatment of the robe with its rich play of light and shade describing so perfectly the weight of the garment, its folds and texture (particularly near the hem), the detail of the embroidered skull cap realised with a minimum of fuss, the subtle introduction of the prayer beads in the left hand and, above all, that confident stripe of white across the bottom of the paper that serves to root the figure firmly to the ground and place him squarely before the screen.

It is a delight to see such work; a clear statement executed with economy, sure technical skill and panache.

Sound figure drawing — whether the figure is clothed or naked — is and always has been the bedrock of fine art in the European tradition (that practised by an overwhelming majority of East African artists), which is why the Royal Academy schools in the UK, among others, insisted on at least a year in the antique class, drawing plaster casts of famous Greek and Roman sculptures, before letting students loose in the life class, which often became an enduring obsession.

Name almost any famous artist (including sculptors) and they drew from life throughout their careers.

A case in point is that of Timothy Brooke, whose every show includes figure drawing to a high degree. He has been doing it for so long that with models he knows well (his wife Jill, for instance) he can capture a pose and a likeness almost with a flick of the wrist.

Examples abound in his current exhibition at the One-Off Gallery in Nairobi’s western Rosslyn suburb (until December18) where among the 20 new paintings in the main exhibition hall are six of Jill in pan make-up as a clown.

Clowns can be scary but Jill is painted in performance at a show near their home in Nanyuki, and alone during the interval as wholly composed, serene within a space of her own making.

Fine work… and there are a further 14 typically broad landscapes to go at, plus 10 or so earlier paintings hung nearby in the stable block.

Also taking the figure as his main subject is an artist new to me and, given that this is his first show, to almost everyone else, I should imagine.

Chege Gitura, an interior designer who has turned to painting, is offering 28 pictures at the National Museum on Museum Hill in Nairobi (until December 15).

Clearly in love with the female figure, his models are nude, semi-nude, fully clothed, by turn arch, brazen or coy.

Chege paints with a palette knife which, as he points out, is fine for broad strokes, less so for detail. It is a difficult tool to handle and for a beginner a brush might have offered greater control.

Nonetheless this exhibition, called New Horizons, represents a brave start to a lonely and difficult career. He deserves our best wishes and hopes.

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