Migrants who step out into the void

Saturday September 10 2016

Pull, (left) and Dirge to Flight, by Peterson Kamwathi. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY

Pull, (left) and Dirge to Flight, by Peterson Kamwathi. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

The migrant crisis continues to concern print-makers, painters and sculptors across the region.

One of East Africa’s best-known artists, Peterson Kamwathi, recently developed an exhibition at the Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institut in Nairobi that included paintings and drawings by refugees and migrants as well as by established local painters such as Shabu Mwangi, Thom Ogonga and Michael Soi.

Now Kamwathi has addressed the subject in his own work with an exhibition of etchings and drawings that ends a five-year period during which he has not held a solo show in this region. Instead he has focused on exhibitions in museums and galleries abroad, including Vienna, London, Paris, Miami and New York.

His current show, Constellation and Sediment II: The Void, is at the One-Off in Rosslyn, Nairobi until September 25. It marks a return to his home gallery as well as to his first love, printing. Kamwathi clearly revels in the medium, at ease with his salts, waxes and copper sheets.

All these works — 13 aquatint etchings and seven mixed media drawings on paper— constitute a plea for compassion towards those forced to flee in search of safety and a better life.

Along the way, the show broadens into a technical examination of bodies in motion — in mid-air, leaping, diving, falling, whirling — that become metaphors for the wider movement of peoples across continents.

As Kamwathi tells it, both etchings and drawings examine postures associated with movement; the point where the body passes through or is suspended in air or water. He comments: “The start is certain but the end point is always hinged on dreams.”

The etchings include a small group where the bodies are assumed, not realised on paper or plate. They are of balloons and kites, floating and soaring, indicative of a temporary, perhaps false freedom. The tethers are taut.

They are expertly drawn and apart from any assumed political content, the artist clearly became fascinated by the way a kite rides the wind, how a balloon rises against its line.

The aquatints are rendered densely on the plate, resonating with his familiar tonal charcoal drawings. The bite of the plate embeds the etching in the paper to the point that the medium becomes indivisible from the artist’s ideas and the clarity of their expression.

You could almost plunge your hands into the images and let them slip and slide around your fingers, so concrete is their presence. The balloons would float, the kites fly, the lines binding them to the earth are taut and would vibrate if plucked.

These etchings are small at around 15cm by 15cm, but a suite of nine other etchings, each around 35cm by 32cm, develops the theme of moving bodies with figures that float, hover, bend and fall around bases symbolic of the reasons for migration; differences, for example, of religion (a figure soars above a minaret and a church tower), conflict (tank traps) and national identity (flags).

Although each stands as a statement in its own right, they should ideally be kept together to develop the argument, a cluster of works for public reference. With an edition of only two plus artists’ proofs, however, this is unlikely to happen.

While these etchings tackle the reasons for migration, the drawings focus on the practicalities of mass movement, principally on navigation.

Again the figures, fall, dive, swim, leap or simply stand… in some cases are braced against flags that are off stage, against a matrix of stars; constellations that are the oldest of all navigational aids.

By fracturing backgrounds (Pull) and juxtaposing volumes (Dirge to Flight) as interlocking stages for his figures, Kamwathi creates an angular fragmentation of the picture plane and adds energy to the works through series of layered perspectives that introduce depth and generate a jolting excitement.

In the earlier, smaller drawings the figures are cut out and glued into place, which allows a number of positions to be tried before the final composition is settled. In the largest works, Kamwathi abandons collage and draws directly onto the paper.

All these works, in pastels, crayon, pencil and ink can be enjoyed on a purely formal level too — for their delicacy of colour, unexpected compositions and the linear tensions that Kamwathi at his best, sustains.

A superb show, then. But regrets?

Like Frank Sinatra, I have a few… the main ones being the awkwardness of the exhibition’s title — it describes the content but jars against the elegance of the work — and, more to the point, I mourn the lack of a fully illustrated catalogue or, better still, facsimile booklet particularly of the nine larger etchings.

Such records would preserve the cohesive presentation of an important argument long after the individual pieces have gone their separate ways.

It would also offer a reference point for an outstanding visual analysis of one of the most troubling social, moral and political issues to confront us today.