Nuclear physics and the science of art

Saturday June 11 2016

Left, Cuctus; and right, Dog Donkey, by Ehoodi Kichape. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY

Left, Cuctus; and right, Dog Donkey, by Ehoodi Kichape. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY  

By Frank Whalley

I have often thought it would be fun to be a nuclear physicist… a white coat, gold rimmed glasses on the tip of my nose, maybe a pipe on which to suck as I ponder fusion, or fission, or whatever it is.

Unfortunately I know nothing of physics, even less about nuclear energy and although I may promise to study hard for an 0-level in nuclear-ology, I doubt if that would land me a job even at Chernobyl.

Bizarre then that so many people think they can become professional artists without bothering to learn the basics.

Perhaps they liked drawing as a child. Or an aunt told them they were good at it. Whatever the impetus, many think that because they can struggle to get a likeness of the family cat they are equipped to become the new Van Gogh.

Yet the path of the artist is surely as hard as that of the physicist. For, to do the job properly, artists too need skills.

And the minimum skills are an ability to draw accurately and sensitively, describing form, volume and weight, to describe different textures and materials, to have a thorough understanding of colour and composition.


It also helps to have a basic knowledge of anatomy, to know something of the history of art, about different printing techniques, about types of paints and brushes and how to use them, about charcoal, graphite and ink, about papers and canvas and primer and pins… oh, the list goes on and on.

Occasionally we come across artists who can use colour and create compositions instinctively and who draw with the innocence of a child.

It is called outsider art and is very rare.

What we get more often is incompetent draughtsmanship, muddy colours, weak composition and some convoluted back story to encourage the belief we are in the presence of genius.

To create art that will last and add value to the world is very hard work and demands discipline and rigorous study. It is a job that continues 24/7. There is no relief; no let-up; no remission.

No wonder so many artists go completely round the bend — in addition to those who were a sandwich short of a picnic to start with, for even contemplating such an exhausting career.

Getting the basics right is a prerequisite for a career in the arts… even if the artist then goes on to develop a distinctive style that at first sight appears academically detached.

A case in point is that of Ehoodi Kichape, currently showing 18 mixed media paintings at the One-Off in Rosslyn, Nairobi.

They include a few we have seen before, typical neo-expressionist pieces with their screaming skulls, handwritten notes glued to the canvas and references to healing plants and medicines, plus a few witty sideswipes at the art establishment, seen in Kichape’s parody of the current preference for pompous titles with Revised Edition, Vol 5.

Then there are one or two paintings that seem to point a way forward for this consistently telling artist.

His wild graphics (actually economical descriptions that say a lot with a little) confident colouring and sharp compositions show a man who has studied long and hard, absorbed his lessons and welded his knowledge to a free-wheeling vocabulary pioneered by Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Kichape names his other major influences as Jean Dubuffet for his intricate, linear compositions coupled with cartoon-like figures, and Mark Rothko for the vibrating colour fields.

Among Kichape’s most successful essays in this show are: Cuctus, a red flower flaring from fleshy leaves; Dog Donkey, a ghostly figure emerging from a mist of cream and white paint applied like plaster to a wall; and an untitled painting deep and narrow, of a skeletal black figure that resonates against a deep red background slashed with white.

This letterbox format works well for Kichape.

I remember the impact of one of my favourite paintings by him, now in the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum, Naples, and first shown at the RaMoMA in 2009. It is of the Malian musician Ali Farke Toure, pared down to a black skull and torso, grinning wickedly as he plays on a low slung guitar.

And it was the same shape that projected his painting last year of a marabou stork, huge beak clacking down towards the viewer, that took the eye in the artist’s previous solo show at the One-Off.

I get a sense looking at these paintings that Kichape is moving farther from his influences than before, and that perhaps his next exhibition will show us something that surprises, convinces, and is entirely his own.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.