Attention! It’s time to enjoy the oh so subtle art of compromise

Friday September 11 2015

From left, Untitled I, by Peterson Kamwathi;

From left, Untitled I, by Peterson Kamwathi; KPZ 687, by Ehoodi Kichape; and Legislative Drama Season, by Peter Ngugi. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY 

By FRANK WHALLEY

Life, they say, consists of compromise. And if art is life then that must surely be full of compromises too.

That is why when you do find art that has not been in some way negotiated, it is highly prized. Cezanne, Van Gogh and Bacon are all admired for the way they set their targets and then took aim regardless of what anyone thought.

Onwards with courage and sometimes over the cliff.

Galleries have to compromise too. The Little Art Gallery of William Ndwiga at Kisumu offers a few paintings of leopard’s heads plus trays of tourist trinkets among more incisive works by the Lake Basin Group.

And one of the most prestigious galleries in East Africa, the One-Off at Rosslyn on the western edge of Nairobi, does from time to time offer pieces that can be judged by their commercial potential as much as their life-enhancing qualities.

After all, everyone has to eat and pay the bills.

The One-Off demonstrates the truth of this currently with a mixed show called Recent Works II, on the walls until September 23.

It is much to the gallery’s credit that it walks the wire with some skill, continuing to exhibit a hard core of important artworks while also showing paintings and sculpture of a more populist nature to attract what Professor Jonathan Meades described as the “aesthetically myopic.”

There is a similarity of approach by many of the One-Off artists — intellectual, considered, relevant to today’s rapidly changing society.

They include Peterson Kamwathi, Beatrice Wanjiku, Ehoodi Kichape, Richard Kimathi and Peter Ngugi. All are represented in this show.

Kamwathi offers two large collages, Untitled I and Untitled II, both of which feature cut-out figures and speak of individual identities subsumed by that of the crowd.

Untitled II was the more spectacular (around 200 figures, only two of which were women) but Untitled I although smaller was I think the more effective work.

Rigorously conceived with its tight composition and restrained palette it also, through fanning out a phalanx of 60 soldiers from front to rear, reversed our expectations of vanishing-point perspective, laying the figures flat against the picture plane.

This undermined any literal narrative and instead emphasised the soldiers’ role in the artist’s argument as emblems who had lost their individual identities to that of the squad. They are portrayed as one unit, alike in step, uniform and position.

There is beauty in this. The rich, spray-painted sky is holding back a threatening storm; the parade ground in contrast is as delicate as splashes of spring rain — an enormously satisfying piece.

Wanjiku is quietly maturing with each work. The two charcoal heads here have a brooding intensity rare in East African art.

They are studies (Nos II and III) from her Straitjacket series, powerful and disturbing statements of disquiet. People compare Wanjiku with Edvard Munch for some reason but if compare we must (and I see late Goya in much of her recent work) I think another comparison would be with the violence of Frank Auerbach.

If you do not know his work — and he tends to be an artist’s artist with a devoted band of followers and collectors, who rarely raises his head above the parapet — do please Google him. It is well worth the effort.

Kichape interrogates urban chaos with three paintings, one of which, KPZ 687, is an incidental treat for people who love colour with its ravishing combination of pink, black and cream. The title is a car number plate and refers to the state’s treatment of its citizens as another commodity, registered like vehicles through their IDs.

Doctors’ Plaza continues his obsession with medical matters as symbolic of our search for a cure for life, a grinning head painted over 25 horizontal strips of canvas glued down onto a backing sheet on which are scribbled various quasi-medical terms... a metaphor for trying to reassemble some sort of healed reality from the pieces of existence that come our way.

Kimathi and Ngugi exhibit telling works too: Kimathi’s pastel coloured painting Space Men showing characters who have lost their way, gravity free and floating among bottles; Ngugi using reel–to-reel tapes within his boxed cut-outs of figures called Legislative Drama Season (Nos I-IV), representing our leadership elite spouting forth the prepared platitudes of yesteryear, already on tape and ready to go.

Then I thought I espied compromise writ large.

Given the intellectual heft of this exhibition I found the two large paintings by Peter Elungat not so much a jolt, more a syrupy pastry stuffed with clotted cream.

These pictures of women floating through Fairyland in long faux-Mediaeval gowns might well have been recent in the sense that they were lately executed, but they were old in their endless repetition appealing to a taste that requires easily assimilated references and instant gratification.

Slick, professional, burdened with little meaning that I could find, they no doubt look good glowing on dark walls amid the gleam of silver and antique furniture.

The man clearly loves to paint.

My hope is that one day he will use his talent for decoration to present new ideas in a different, fresher context.
Without compromise.