Peter Ngugi likes his food — and it features heavily in his latest exhibition.
Bread, fish, yoghurt and to wash it down Fanta or Coke; all appear in paintings on the walls of the One-Off gallery in Nairobi.
For Ngugi, food is a metaphor for the interactions that mark our daily lives, and, at its most pointed, for corruption; for those who eat.
As a painter he is blossoming, like the flowers he loves to paint as yet another symbol of gains through graft.
Over the past couple of years, Ngugi has developed from making mouse pad-sized pictures of wildlife to a strong if subtle voice highlighting society’s ills. And he is doing so on a huge scale, many of the figures in his current show being at least one-and-a-half times life-size.
These new paintings can be enjoyed on two levels; for the stories they tell and for their formal qualities; the drawing and compositions, the graphic sense of space and use of colour — from subtle caramels and creams to vibrant oranges and pinks — and especially for the dynamic contrast between the succulent strokes of oil paint that shape his subjects’ clothing and the intricate monochrome forms, as tightly designed as henna patterns, of some of the background flourishes.
Like his thoughtful contemporaries Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi and Michael Soi, he sees art as a pathway to change; a reminder of the challenges we face and as a way to apply pressure for a more equitable future.
First know the beast then seek to slay it.
Ngugi shows us groups of men and women, often with their backs to the viewer, apparently discussing the day’s events.
Their clothing is vigorously realised, yet their faces, arms and legs are simply silhouettes; there is no attempt at modelling. The figures then are ciphers; devoid of features they stand for us all, irrespective of tribe or religion. It is as if they are shadows of ourselves cast across the picture surface.
A Kikuyu brought up in Thika and around six feet tall, Ngugi told me he was often mistaken for a Maasai or Kalenjin. It always amuses him. The figures in his paintings are also tall and with exaggeratedly small heads, which adds to the sense of height.
“My paintings are about how all of us behave, not just one or two tribes. The figures are not specific to any community; they stand for everyone,” he told me.
A group of eight small paintings, each around 62cm by 50cm, and called Accomplices I-VIII, record the protests that took place shortly after the disputed 2017 general election.
One shows a street preacher, another a demonstrator with a bullhorn and a colleague waving twigs, and yet another shows women dancing.
“If you elect a bad leader you are an accomplice, not a victim,” Ngugi commented succinctly.
The food and drink punctuate the eight large paintings that are the crux of the exhibition (up to a wall-swallowing 210cm by 214cm) and are signifiers of corruption. The artist has developed a new visual language for prosecuting his attack, and like many languages it needs interpretation.
The fish, tilapia, woven into the complex background patterns are symbols of eating; that is, enjoying the benefits of graft.
Bread that appears in the title of one work and after which the show is named — Fanta Orange na Mkate Nusu (Fanta Orange and Half a Loaf) — as well as being a synonym for money recalls school trips in which the standard lunch was a soda and half a loaf but could be a full loaf if you were friendly with the prefect.
The trips themselves — sports or drama outings for example — were often given out as favours perhaps to be called in later, rather than according to need or merit, Ngugi said.
The Coca Cola crates in several paintings refer to the must-have accessory at a Kikuyu dowry ceremony. The person who brings the crate is the Bwana Mkubwa (Big Man, the Boss) whose generosity is legendary, whose views count and who must be appeased.
Strawberry Yoghurt turns out to be the pet name of a woman caught carrying sacksful of cash to a politician, a real event recorded in Strawberry Yoghurt na Gunia ya Pesa (Strawberry Yoghurt and Sacks of Money).
And then there are the flowers on the dresses of women on Ngugi’s canvases, in some background patterns and, in the punning title of one of the paintings Pesa Maua, Tilapia na Coke (Money Blossoms, Tilapia and Coke).
It comes from the song Shilingi Yaua Tena Maua, by Simba Wanyika, that translates roughly as, “Shilling is a killer and also a flower,” meaning that shillings are like flowers that bloom making life beautiful, but just as flowers soon fade and die, so money and the good life it buys are hard to hang onto.
The gains from graft are only transient, Ngugi is telling us in these deceptively decorative paintings that constitute elegant warnings to corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen — enjoy the flowers while you can because your stolen wealth won’t last for ever.