Politics seen through the eyes of unequal animals

Friday April 26 2013

Presidential Candidates 1 by James Mbuthia. Picture: Frank Whalley

Election fever may have subsided in Kenya, but it lives on in the minds and hearts of our artists, and on the walls of our galleries.

Proof of the pudding, or indeed the paintings, was to be seen recently in the work of James Mbuthia in a one-man show at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi, and in that of several other artists in a group exhibition at that nearby destination of choice for well-heeled consumers, the Village Market.

I like Mbuthia’s pictures, reminiscent as they are of Chagall’s ethereal dreamscapes. Or perhaps it is that I just like Chagall, so anything remotely like him pleases me.

I was not as impressed as I usually am by Mbuthia now presenting himself as The Political Artist. I welcome pictures that project a polemic but these, I am sorry to say, were too simplistic for my taste.

Called How I See Politics, the 17 pictures included Land Issues, a faceless maiden in a field. She was Kenya.

Then there was an enormous porker in snazzily striped trousers and a polka dot jacket — a presidential candidate — while two bulls fighting engaged in a turf war were (yes, indeedy, you beat me to it) Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta.


I was left wondering if I were being unfair by liking Peterson Kamwathi’s depiction of the state as a cow, and readily accepting his view of conflict victims as sheep, but finding Mbuthia’s symbols for politicians to be, as well as inconsistent, rather obvious, even shallow.

Perhaps it is because Kamwathi (and several other artists; Richard Kimathi for instance) offer more than just the bald comparison, and instead place their symbols within a broader context, augmented by other iconography that enriches their viewpoint.

Kamwathi’s sheep have shadows made of bombs, machine guns or tanks, his cows have dollar and euro signs; Kimathi’s monkeys, pigs and weasels interact in a complex mental dance as they cavort across the canvas. Mbuthia’s animals tend to be passive — a one-trick, one-shot point.

Also Mbuthia’s paint has thickened and this, for me at least, makes his figures stiffer imbuing this pictures with a clogged, sticky feel. I much preferred his more fluid earlier work where the paint was often a soft stain that entered both the warp of the canvas and the weft of our hearts.

Come back, James — all is forgiven!

There was much to be seen at the Village Market where the fourth annual Manjano exhibition was in full swing.

With some 100 paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations in both exhibition halls, and Ksh620,000 ($7,750) prize money on offer, it gets bigger and better as the years roll by. The pictures are getting bigger too. As are the price tags. Size matters, it seems.

Many of the pictures dealt with the recent Kenyan elections and offered some fascinating views.

Michael Soi did not disappoint. His painting of the Buruburu polling station showed women who had no mouths (the electorate with no voice) queuing to vote while being ogled by the officials, and two election observers fast asleep.

Dennis Muraguri offered a large graphic work Matatu 4 Governor above the promise, “Manyanga, Music, Mischief & Mayhem”, while Dickens Otieno painted two candidates, one each side of the ridges of his corrugated canvas. Uhuru morphed into Raila as your eyes moved across the picture. Based on advertising hoardings but ingenious nonetheless.

Outstanding works

My favourite was Jacqueline Karuti’s Death of a Sun — a bright yellow allegory of a figure hanging from a tree, on which was written, poignantly, “Please vote for me, I already told my Mom I won.”

Aside from all the politics two outstanding works were Round a Round Gal in stitched steel and braided cloth strips by Otieno Kota and Siku Kuu (A Holiday) by Florence Wangui.

Bigger than life size and across two huge sheets of paper, Wangui’s charcoal drawing was of people standing around five chickens, which were perched on a rail. Buyers looking for lunch, I assume.

I yield to no-one in my admiration for Wangui’s drawing skills, but if we see her chickens at every turn, what have we fans to look forward to when she holds her long-awaited, first one-woman show?

Please Florence, for a while at least — Cock-a-doodle-don’t…

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email:[email protected]