They say criminals always return to the scene of their crime… and so, affecting a nonchalant air of innocence I went back to the Young Guns exhibition at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi’s leafy Lavington for a second look.
I did want to see some of the stuff I skipped past on my first visit, but mainly I was keen to look again at Dickens Otieno’s figures woven from shredded aluminum drink cans.
Those two torsos, on the wall near the entrance, sparkle in the changing light and have a presence out of proportion to their size and weight.
Part of a series of around 20 similar pieces, they reference how compulsory school uniforms influence students’ futures, through enforced conformity and social expectations.
We become what we wear.
The aluminum is woven rather as banana fibre was used by previous generations; a commonly disregarded material given new meaning and worth through art.
They are hugely satisfying works admirable both for their craftsmanship and for the beguiling delivery of their message.
Others deserving attention include Emmanus Kimani with his photograph City Craves Power, which considers the interaction of people and architecture, Kaloki Nyamai, whose mixed media imagery seeks similarities between the past and present.
Waweru Gichuhi from the Brush Tu Studio, whose colourful canvas Alternative Lines of Communication (reds and blues salted with a yellow balloon) investigates the impact of social media and the increased use of apps, emojis and emoticons that is turning us into a society that eschews the written word.
It still bothers me that there are no women among the 26 Young Guns, and I remain puzzled by curator Danda Jaroljmek’s catalogue statement that the task awaits, “to find the hidden female voices.”
If these voices are hidden then they are hidden in plain sight — and not to hear them gives a lopsided view of the region’s burgeoning talent.
So, helpful as ever, here is my pick of 10 of the best of Kenya’s young women artists, our Female Young Gun Persons… and that still leaves a great deal of Kenya and the rest of East Africa to go at.
The difficulty is that a bit like buses, you wait forever for one to come along, then a whole lot of them arrive at once, in this case probably going Yee Har!
For a start there is Jackie Karuti, who won the Young Artist Award at this year’s Cape Town Art Fair, with her films, videos, drawings and extending books, all relating to her exploration of another, invented world.
The stylish Expressionist painter Nadia Wamunyu is still at Kuona, as is the Iranian Maral Bolouri, known both for her dynamic figure drawing (which she teaches, too, in Trust workshops) and imaginative use of photocopy transfers to radiate the continuing spiritual and secular subjugation of women.
A touch too established maybe to be considered a Female Young Gun Person, but if the current show’s definitions of Young Guns can be stretched to include the internationally recognised Denis Muraguri with his $12,000 woodcuts of matatus then why not Bolouri as well?
Another artist concerned with women’s roles is Jessica Atieno, who held her first solo show just two years ago, at Kuona, and has already made a mark with her sympathetic figure drawing.
Then there is Florence Wangui; she of the charcoal chickens and stained glass for the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho… already well on her way to ranking among some of the region’s best known artists.
Like Dickens Otieno, she was a pupil of Patrick Mukabi at the city’s GoDown Arts Centre, and, like Otieno, her work is a metaphor for issues of identity within the social structure.
Otieno questions the role of school uniforms in shaping us, while in Wangui’s drawings the chicken coop can be seen as symbolic of the wider society. The phrase “pecking order” springs to mind.
Also not to be overlooked is the mixed media artist Joan Otieno, another of Mukabi’s former pupils now at Maasai Mbili in Kibera, producing works from recycled materials including bottles, plastics and weavings.
The list goes on.
The wristy paintings of writer and critic Zihan Kassam are a growing delight, as are the intricate collages of Larissa Hoops, which are packed with commentary.
Patti Endo and Mercy Kagia are making names for themselves with their incisive line drawings and, like Hoops, both show at the Polka Dot Gallery in Karen.
These are 10 of Kenya’s finest young artists, but the list is not exhaustive.
So while Young Guns remains well worth a visit (or two) it would have been strengthened immeasurably with an overview that included some of the amazing — and visible — female voices out there.