Now breaking free with a wicked wit

Saturday July 14 2018

Untitled, Ehoodi Kichapi

"Untitled" by Ehoodi Kichapi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

By FRANK WHALLEY
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Ehoodi Kichapi’s paintings exemplify my belief that good art brings the reality of its subject into the room.

Appearances can be, as they say, deceptive, and any attempt to capture them alone rather misses the point; you have the shell but lack the guts.

Kichapi’s inventive swirls and slashes — the whole rowdy mess of them — arrive before us in a helter-skelter rush.

Instead of creating an immaculate representation, what this artist gives us is the sense of the thing; the smell and feel of it. He discovers his subjects’ key characteristics and lays them bare before us.

You can see what I mean in his current show of some 60 paintings on paper, canvas and vinyl; so many in fact that they take all the space at the One Off in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi; both the main gallery and the whole of the new Stables Annex.

The exhibition, called Contemplations and on until July 24, is also a retrospective, although not billed as such.

Some of the paintings go back to 2012 while others were completed just recently.

Together they provide a useful overview of Kichapi’s work and the opportunity to see how he has progressed from subservience to the three artists he so admires — Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon, who each have such distinctive styles that it must have been a nightmare trying to escape their powerful grip.

Yet, painting by painting, Kichapi is achieving this, melding their influences to forge his own ouevre; hesitant at times, awkward at others, then in works such as Frog Mock, Bat and Dentist, triumphantly breaking free.

And always with a wicked wit.

There is now some movement towards a more considered, less frenzied look than the mingling of his three masters originally caused.

The desperate scribbles often collaged onto the canvas that remind one so strongly of Dubuffet have given way to a more succulent painterly approach as Bacon comes to the fore, and there are far fewer of the grinning skulls pioneered by Basquiat.

It is true that many of Kichapi’s subjects remain the same, particularly his main one, which is, I suppose like most good artists, a search for self. But the vehicle is slowly changing and becoming more suited to the familiar landscape it roams.

Noticeable by their absence from the later works (often those using spray paint and on vinyl sheets) are the previously constant medical references — to pills, potions, herbs and the healing neem tree.

Now his menagerie of symbolic animals comes to the fore, although humans are not forgotten, more controlled but nonetheless menacing.

Thus in Dentist in the main gallery we recognise the threat; the way he looms before us, with pain the only certainty.

And in Old Man nearby, which uses the similar complementary colour scheme of yellow and blue, the angry figure with bold black specs advances, shoulders hunched.

Kichapi’s animal magic brings us Swine, suitably porcine, pink, plump and glistening, while in Untitled the subject, fluently realised with only four lines of oil stick, is trapped on a black matrix within a pale blue and white web, legs tucked in and ready to spring.

It is only one of several fine examples of frogs in this show; his symbols of chaos with their sudden leaps in unexpected directions.

We also know Kichapi’s cattle — now occasionally enhanced with flashes of spray paint, as in Green Cow, revealing graffiti art as another of his influences — and we know his many donkeys, burdens of unfair blame, and the wily foxes and horny goats that route themselves crazily through his work.

Added to this zoo are cats; a roomful of them in the Stables Annex — his Wild Cat series — some purring, sitting sleekly, others threatening to spit and scratch if you get too close.

For Kichapi, cats like witches’ familiars symbolise the ability to evade pursuit; shape-shifting and ever ready to slip silently past anyone wishing to do them or their owners harm.

Folklore is rich in cats; always vigilant, wily and protective, sometimes ending up in sacks and being burnt for abetting sorcery… and in Nakuru, in a history so recent I dare hardly think of it, becoming the filling for tasty little samosas.

So far uneaten and safely on the wall is a group including Ginger and Red, snarling and spiky, hackles raised, preparing to pounce.

Also in the annex can be found 26 paintings on paper; some of them, like Veterinary, quite superb.

One Off director Carol Lees has used the challenge of extra space to organise a salon hang with the paintings presented in groups of four, six and eight — very effective and revealing something of the variety as well as the power of this exceptional artist.