Landscapes offered as acts of worship

Friday June 17 2016

Distant Murmurings, by Camille Wekesa. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Do the simple things, a wise woman once told me. If you don’t understand something, just ask.

And don’t overthink things either. If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, the chances are it will taste good on its back with orange sauce.

So if I see a painting that looks a bit of a mess it is probably not a witty example of post-modernist irony but some daub by an incompetent wannabe.

But there are occasions when the benefit of doubt comes into play, particularly when viewing the work of established artists. There must be a reason for this, I tell myself and start to search for answers.

It happened at the current exhibition of paintings by Camille Wekesa, an artist known for her love of landscape and consummate attention to detail.

Yet passages in several of her paintings — at the Red Hill gallery, near Limuru, until July 10 — seem to be strangely different from the rest of the canvas.


Of the 20 paintings in this exhibition, entitled Skies, Plains and Mountains, in several of the larger works (roughly 125cm by 180cm) areas are left apparently incomplete, at odds with her super realist style.

Typical is the foreground of Sacred Lakes; a dizzying view from Lenana Peak on Mt Kenya, where the grass is a velvet drape instead of the accumulation of individual leaves we are used to from this artist.

It is a daring composition with its bird’s eye view of cliffs, and lakes nestling on plateaux as mist gently descends.

Another painting, a large picture of doum palms called Hushed Stillness, features loose brushwork and a much broader approach in what I took to be a welcome change from her obsessive rendering of every blade of grass.

Again, in Submerged in a Sea of Grass — a savannah scene — the grass in the background remains unfinished, throwing the picture slightly out of balance.

And then I got it.

Wekesa was using her brush as a photographer opens up the lens aperture; to blur the things that do not matter leaving only the essentials sharply in focus.

This was an attractive analysis, I thought, but to be on the safe side I asked if this was indeed her intention.

It turns out I was completely wrong.

Areas of these paintings appear unfinished because they are, in fact, unfinished. As simple as that.

Given time, all the grass will be painted in and the palms will be resplendent with strap like leaves finished with meticulous care.

Meanwhile, these unfinished works are not for sale but are presented as examples of the artist’s technique.

Each large painting takes Wekesa between six and eight months to complete, and with an exhibition looming…

In spite of my classic case of overthinking, this is a fascinating show.

In particular I liked Distant Murmurings, in which we are invited down a murram track leading us past a silvery baobab tree and onto a hillside dense with foliage.

Having moved from Nairobi to the calm of the countryside some kilometres outside Nanyuki, Wekesa lives and works among the landscapes that inspire her.

Her paintings, as the writer and rancher Kuki Gallmann points out in the catalogue, are a collection of prayers. Indeed, Wekesa worships her surroundings and Mt Kenya, which dominates the local scenery, is a favourite deity, as are the open plains, their wildlife and the huge skies.

Generally Wekesa’s drawing is precise (although her elands and the elephant could do with a bit more work) and her attention to detail can beguile.

It can be seen with even greater intensity in her smaller paintings, each around 20cm by 20cm. Like Indian miniatures they gleam on the wall; a cheetah, a guinea fowl, oryx, a kudu, a group of zebra all caught by a relentless eye and immaculate brush.

All these paintings, like tapestries, confound by their intricacy and excite with their proficiency.

Would I want one on my wall? Probably not. I would end up going mad trying to count the leaves.

Also super realism is a high risk strategy.

It layers in time in a way that photographs cannot, and it captures a likeness for sure, but it does not necessarily present the presence — and once technical ability is taken as read, painting is all about the presence.

But I do admire Wekesa’s skill, her brave and unexpected compositions, the way she modulates her colour schemes and her ceaseless, diligent application.