Paintings with the power to disturb

Friday May 03 2019

'Of Fish and Men' by Anthony Okello. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


Migraines and malaria have something in common, apart from beginning with an ‘m’ and being deeply unpleasant.

Each is heralded by an aura, a sensation peculiar to the victim and instantly recognisable.

Some see flashes of light or experience a sudden giddiness; others feel an overall darkness as though death itself were about to descend on them.

I suffer that aura whenever I see certain paintings by the Kenyan artist Anthony Okello.

Yet I generally admire his work.

He paints with authority, can compose multiple images effortlessly on a vast scale and he utilises a broad and harmonious palette. He faces big issues without flinching and tackles them boldly.


And I am not alone in my approval. Okello’s paintings are sought after internationally, museums add them to their collections and he is widely recognised as among the leading East African artists.

I much enjoy his enormous interpretations of traditional tribal mythologies (there is an excellent one of Taita legends in the National Museum of Kenya collection) yet the much praised Masquerade series that he began in 2013 makes that dark cloud descend.

The misshapen masked heads that mark that series rear up at odd angles, their necks seemingly made of rubber, their faces in blues and purples.

They speak of the ambivalence of identity yet their distortions make me nauseous when a more subtle presentation would have made the same point more winningly.

Unfortunately, two of these feature in Okello’s current exhibition, called Fishy Business, on at the One Off Gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi until May 19.

These heads are only two of the 15 paintings in this show (admittedly big ones at 150x129cm for Burden of Proof III and 153x150cm for Belief in People) but they set the tone for some of the faces in the other paintings, as if they had seeped like a miasma of dark grey poison hissing across the gallery floor and infecting the other paintings as though in some horror film.

There is, however, much to admire in this exhibition.

The paintings Okello has made this year—all oils on canvas—focus on corruption.

In a nutshell, the many fish we see are the food we eat; the figures are the people who steal it from us, while yet others are their enablers and their victims.

In the signature painting Of Fish and Men, the artist binds three figures and 18 fish into a taut composition that exemplifies his thesis: Okello at his best.

The dark figures—a corrupt elite lurking in the shadows waiting to steal—merge mysteriously into the background while before them the shoal swims brightly, articulated around an angler fish, its lure as bright as a light bulb.

Nearby, a group of pasty heads—Bow Head, Which One, Hold It and The Intake—were painted after the artist’s daughter created impromptu faces from a row of dough balls on the kitchen table.

They inspired Okello to recreate them to highlight what he sees as the Chinese determination to strip Africa of its assets.

Three other paintings (Secure I, II and III) are of soldiers in profile and indicate those used in the process of corruption, while the two Colours of Obscurity are of prisoners (hence the striped shirts) trapped by their own actions or the limitations—or excesses—of their thoughts and desires.

A striking painting called Prophetess, Rev, Dr, Bishop, Mrs...codifies Okello’s wonder at why people believe themselves to be prophets in the first place, and his amazement at the titles they give themselves.

Another strong single figure is Man in the Middle, bulbous and stripped of everything but his red necktie, who represents what is left of ourselves when all else is taken.

Then finally we have the lyrical Nkobo Sisters, three upright figures whose hair has evolved into foliage. Separated from the mainstream of this show, it pays tribute to one of Okello’s favourite places, a village near Timau.

Joyous and whimsical, it hangs near the two paintings from his latest shots at the Masquerade; those I like the least.

You can dislike an artist’s work for many reasons...sometimes because while well executed it is simple plagiarism, or bereft of ideas, or incompetent, or because it brings back unwanted memories… but rarely because it is so disturbing that it induces alarm.


'Masquerade-Belief in People' by Anthony Okello. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Okello is not the first person to cause me visceral distress with his art—and in doing so he is in excellent company.

I still remember how, after visiting the Francis Bacon retrospective in London in the Seventies, I woke up at 4am howling like a dog, scared witless and soaked in sweat.

I had suffered a nightmare in which the subject of one of Bacon’s fierce paintings, a paralytic child on all fours, had lurched towards me, coming to kill.
Bacon is one of the most disturbing — and greatest — painters I know, and this comparison is surely a compliment to the power of Okello’s imagery.

And although I do find Okello’s Masquerade images unforgettably unpleasant, I respect Lucien Freud’s dictum that a painting should first astonish then disturb before it does finally convince.

Yet still I find the Masquerade paintings not beautiful but brutal, and still I wait to be convinced.