"What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.”
So said Lucien Freud, one of the finest of figurative painters.
He sprang to mind when I viewed the current exhibition of one of the region’s leading artists; leading in imagination, reach and quality, if not initially in sales.
For Richard Kimathi is an artist’s artist — a quiet man so respected by his colleagues that they invariably attend his exhibition openings to see what new perceptions he has to offer.
Yet it is an odd thing about Kimathi’s work that although he is internationally recognised (the UN published a postage stamp of one of his paintings; others in the series were Vermeer and Matisse) his pictures rarely sell strongly at first sight.
It is later, often a year or two later, that the public taste catches up and all the works originally left on the wall are eagerly tracked down and bought.
Why is this? What is the key to his importance within the regional canon; one that provides the platform for his wider reputation?
Certainly, to take Freud’s maxim, his paintings can astonish.
His current exhibition, called The Common People is at the One-Off in Rosslyn, Nairobi, until next weekend and it demonstrates just how astonishing Kimathi can be.
He peoples his canvases with the anxious and the dispossessed, with sideswipes at exploiters, the cynicism of politicians being a favourite target.
At times bewildering, occasionally — almost shockingly — lyrical, these paintings astonish in the way the artist presents his figures as cyphers that live in our imaginations long after we have left.
One painting, The Vocals I, is of dozens of faces with glittering teeth, sinking slowly beneath the sea. These are the drowned migrants.
Another, Ghost of the Sea, shows a blinded central figure surrounded by floating baskets of those still alive while the sky is filled with dark stains representing the souls of those who died.
And without a doubt they disturb.
Several of the paintings are of bright yellow skulls piled high…. in The Tongue, the genocidal horror of Rwanda speaks to us, while Political Guru shows an assertive figure wearing the shirt of a clown standing before a neat pyramid of severed heads.
Two of the paintings, among the most powerful in this exhibition, depict hanged men. One is called A Better Place, the other He Was a Friend.
Kimathi believes the rate of suicide in rural communities is increasing dramatically and these disturbing images are his response.
Eventually these works seduce and finally convince.
The quality of the physical painting delights, usually smooth as an Old Master’s.
His choice of colours is another pleasure, often surprising yet seemingly inevitable.
The skulls are on a vivid green background; the sinking faces grey against the swelling sea.
Kimathi’s hanged men dangle before deep blue backgrounds with glints of magenta, while the figures around their feet as though at a secular Crucifixion are startlingly bright and lit like players on a stage. Which of course they are — tableaux of death and despair before the hope of Resurrection. The Common People die to be reborn only through a changed social and political climate. They are at once tender and beautiful.
Then there is Kimathi’s consuming desire to experiment… his willingness to break the picture plane, occasionally reaching out to the viewer with three-dimensional stuffed figures; his use of coloured string to serve as raindrops or as hair; his penchant for collage, edges left raw to express the hurt his subjects suffer.
All these techniques reinforce and project his vision of an anxious world.
It is a place of trampled victims and those who use their power and prejudices to exploit them.
These paintings, burning slowly with their quiet intelligence, seduce the eye and convince both mind and heart.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.