Conflicting values? you can bank on it...

Saturday May 7 2016

Sehnsucht by Beatrice Wanjiku. PHOTO | FRANK

Sehnsucht by Beatrice Wanjiku. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

The Surrealist Rene Magritte, a man who combined depth of intellect with a soaring imagination, was always to be seen — even at the easel — tightly buttoned in a dark, three-piece suit.

He was said to have dressed like a Belgian banker, presumably a byword for sobriety, conveying a reassuring sense of responsibility when handling money.

Which leads me to wonder if certain senior staff at the troubled Imperial and Chase banks in Kenya went to work dressed as clowns blowing the vuvuzela, but that as they say is altogether a different matter.

Queen Victoria was prim in public but vivacious in private, and the meticulously organised paintings of Lucien Freud were created by an artist painting either naked from the waist up or wearing chef’s chequered trousers and heavy, unlaced boots.

So contradictions abound, all of which leads us to the Kenyan painter Beatrice Wanjiku Njoroge, a lady who sparkles with laughter outside the studio but who, given a canvas, produces work so grim that I am reminded of the late Goya and Francis Bacon at his most disturbing. Others talk of the demented Norwegian Edvard Munch.

But why? Why does such an outwardly happy soul thus transform herself when painting?

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Some reasons can be found in her current exhibition, Divine Discontent at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi, until May 24.

There hang 12 recent paintings from her Straitjacket series, a title that in itself more than hints at the horrors of the asylum.

And sees us as the inmates.

For the straitjacket is Wanjiku’s metaphor for the boundaries that constrict people. Her figures explore the disparity between our expectations and the limitations imposed by the social mores we inherit from role models.

Her diptych Sehnsucht, the keynote painting of the show, shocks both visually and by occupying the space between craving and fulfilment. An unsettling work, its phallic figure is a devouring monster, resounding against a background of cream and ochre.

Sehnsucht is the German word for something far off and indefinable — presumably a resolution of this dichotomy — but the painting could also be titled Homage to Francis Bacon, given the striking resemblance of the figure to those in Bacon’s 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the work that kickstarted his career.

Its partner in this exhibition is called An Unstructured Mess. Similar if smaller, it is by comparison an appendix to the magisterial Sehnsucht that, in spite of its obvious antecedent, is a work of museum quality.

Two other figures relate to this troubling pair.

The first is Res Ipsa Loquitur (Wanjiku loves esoteric titles; this one is a legal term meaning the very fact of an accident or injury implies negligence) in which one head with a raw, gaping mouth is jammed on top of another but smaller head. They stare out at us, bloody and determined to engage.

Unfortunately, the picture reminded me of the psychopath Ed Gein, the American killer and body snatcher who wore a corpse’s head and rib cage on his own head, like a helmet mask. He was the model for Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Precisely because of its resonances and their concomitant power to unnerve us through references to popular culture, I see it as another candidate for a major collection.

The second in this series, Losing My Religion, also of compounded heads, is lighter in colour but as dark in mood.

And then there are the other eight paintings, all of which feature the straitjackets of the series’ title.

One group of three single figures set on yellow backgrounds further interrogate constricting social values.

The most successful of them, in scope and execution, is Disquieting Muses in which two bound figures flank the monster from Sehnsucht, this time upright. It speaks of how our role models sometimes fail us even while seeming to offer support, by holding us to their own values, thus inhibiting our development.

Elsewhere, bandaged heads, dripping blood and mouths like wounds signify this artist’s concern with the gap between our expectations and reality.

All the works bear their titles scribbled across the canvas in the artist’s handwriting. Yet they are all upside down. If written, are they not to be read? Or are they simply to be taken as marks consolidating Wanjiku’s Expressionist credentials? I think the latter.

This is an intelligent and fascinating exhibition with an overarching theme that touches us all.

It also demonstrates that at least one thing is clear — with her determination to dissect the pain caused by the chasm between received social values and our desires, Beatrice Wanjiku is a painter going places.

And you can take that to whatever banks remain open.