GALLERIES: Peril of paintings that pall on wall

Friday January 17 2020

'Finding Peace' by Happy Roberts PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


Continuing the policy of giving his Banana Hill gallery a truly regional focus, Shine Tani has currently turned over his space to three Tanzanians, all of whom paint in a roughly similar style.

Given the somewhat dubious title of Masters Strokes, it might have been wiser to call the exhibition simply “Three of a Kind”, for that is exactly what they are.

The three are Haji Chilonga, Abubakary Chikoyo and Happy Roberts, and their style is a sort of loose Realism, or a watered down Impressionism, if like me you hanker for categories to set it all in context.

What these paintings represent boils down to an attempt to reproduce what the three see every day...people walking, waiting, dashing through the rain, selling things at the market place; candid portraits and those other subjects common to this region, cattle and wildlife being prominent among them.

They reveal the artists’ honest wish to record the appearance of things, in which they are more or less successful. What they fail to do is catch their subjects’ breathing presence—a far more difficult task.

However we describe it, it is a popular approach to painting—one to which most amateurs aspire—and one that offers recognisable subjects, well composed and with harmonious colour schemes.


There’s nothing really wrong with this sort of painting of course, except...well, it does not put much back into the pot.

“Art is useless if it does not energise your life,” said the sculptor Antony Gormley (as I noted a couple of weeks ago, again in reference to work at Banana Hill). This style tends to be a one hit wonder with a short shelf life. Not much to get your teeth into. Unpretentious and attractive at first glance, it is true, but after a while it begins to pall on the wall.

So if I am less than enthusiastic about these professional and competent paintings, what do I want when I look at a piece of art?

It is a question I often ask myself and the answer is a mix of many things that can change according to my mood. But generally, I want to be surprised and shocked; informed and excited; dismayed yet satisfied; seduced and convinced (the last two borrowed from Lucien Freud); and I also want the possibility of fresh insights and new ideas I can use to improve my quality of life. Yes, I hope to be energised (from Gormley) and spiritual uplift comes into it too.

I look too for professional competence, although often in the case of self-taught artists driven by their own fixations formal qualities take second place to their drive, ambition, ideas and frequently, their senses of wonder and fun.

Banana Hill has many such artists, not always on display, but these three Masters are a different category. They can draw, they can paint, they can compose; it is just the ability to energise they lack, for me at least.

But see if they can work that magic for you.

There are 51 paintings, with the best known artist among them, Haji Chilonga, showing the fewest; just nine.

Chilonga is well known to Kenyan gallery-goers—a reliable supplier of everyday scenes, slices of life, given a twist with a sort of dashing expertise and simplification that looks easy but takes skill and underlying drawing ability to achieve.

This can be seen to advantage in his largest piece, called Interaction. It greets visitors by the door and shows people huddled beneath umbrellas that arc rhythmically across the composition. The ground is soaking but the sky is beginning to brighten...all achieved with a minimum of telling strokes, emphasised by patches of canvas left bare.


'Interaction' by Haji Chilonga. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Showing 31 paintings, Abubakary Chikoyo is relatively unknown in Kenya and reveals himself to be another artist whose subject is whatever he sees around him. This includes wildlife (buffaloes and flamingos feature here) the migration, children at play, lovers, musicians, caring couples and, notably in a departure from what appears to be his usual style, a nomadic family that remains Untitled.

It gains through the intensity of the artist’s gaze and is matched by another painting in similar style, called Collector, of a woman, baby on her back, festooned with kiondos and carved gourds, each carefully described.

And then we have Happy Roberts, whose portraits are by turns direct, charming and whimsical. Sometimes all three at once.

Roberts has that increasingly common tendency to apply extraneous dabs of a background colour to foreground faces and arms (see the lemon yellow in Mtulivu, for example), in an attempt to add vitality and also coherence to the work but all it does, usually, is to flatten the image by unifying the picture planes, thus counteracting the very effect for which she was aiming.

Finding Peace with its pink touches on the forehead and cheekbone is another example in which a neutral tone could have been better, but it is saved by fine drawing and the model’s reflective expression.

Thus it becomes the exception that proves the rule.