Portraits of a worried nation

Friday August 1 2014

National/ Official Clowns by Anthony Okelleo. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

National/ Official Clowns by Anthony Okelleo. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 


Art is about thinking. Paint, paper, canvas, clay and are means to an end.

Often the thinking concerns understanding the world we inhabit, our place in it, how society is shaping us and what will improve our lot.

Sometimes it is about technical matters related to the craft — how light is seen, the volumes within a landscape or human figure, how best to show the heft of a weighty object, to portray mass, or to etch humanity in a face… in the suffering of one man is distilled the suffering of mankind… timely methods of posing timeless questions and new ways of expressing old ideas.

Less happily, the thinking sometimes focuses on how to wring another dollar from a buyer, how to repeat that last successful work — or worse, copy someone else’s last successful work — or how to knock out another picture before lunch.

Of course artists have to live and they are exceptionally lucky if they can survive without at least one eye on their clients. But the best of them lead their clients’ tastes — and symbiotically, creative collectors are usually eager to lock onto their artists’ wary insights.

Good artists have the knack of second guessing life… they seem to know what lies around the corner, although they cannot always articulate it fluently.


Yet art does not always predict. Sometimes it reacts. This could be seen clearly in Kenya after the 2007 General Election when national optimism mutated into ethnic violence.

Many are questioning the current state of a nation involved in a foreign war and harried by terrorists, governed by leaders who argue about their own pay while their constituents languish in poverty without hope of employment.

Art becomes the currency of protest: MPigs. The artists see a lack of direction and control. There is drift, confusion and anxiety, they say.

Their thinking bubbles to the surface in an exhibition called State of the Nation at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi. This mixed show was planned some time ago but the theme developed only when curator Carol Lees realised that several of the key works dealt with that common anxiety. It was as though some collective, Jungian anxiety had seized the local art world.

Among the 20 or so paintings on show for the next month, Allan Githuka, Anthony Okello and Peter Ngugi all exhibit large works centred on their political apprehensions.

Both Patrick Mukabi and Shabu Mwangi choose mbati to express their fears. Githuka shows two paintings each featuring rows of detached heads — faces as though seen in a crowd.

One is simple enough; at the comforting yellow end of the spectrum it is called Global United and invites us to consider football — and I suspect the World Cup in particular — as a unifying agent in the face of schism. The other, far cooler with its dominant greys and blues flecked with scarlet highlights is called A Worried Nation, and the frightened expressions on the faces exemplify that.

Anthony Okello, known for his sprawling allegories, offers two pictures superficially of clowns, with tight compositions and a bright, jazzy palette. One, National/Official Clowns, shows a man and a woman, their faces painted in the colours of the Kenya flag. The other is called Juggling the Nation and is of one white-faced clown, surrounded by balls, again the colours of the flag. The artist identified to me all three figures as politicians.

Peter Ngugi moved some time ago from his tight paintings of stylised animals — ideal for tablemats or mouse pads — to a far grander scale. It is as though he is finding himself by exploring all possibilities. His application of paint remains meticulous, almost enamelled, and to this he has added painstakingly cut patches of khangas.

Here his picture Building Africa shows a series of totemic Africans placed at all angles across the canvas clutching AK-47s made of his cut out cloths. It is a powerful, well executed if obvious statement that reminded me of Mao’s comment about power growing from the barrel of a gun.

This artist, unlike his paintings, which are immaculate, is a work in progress and it will be fascinating to see him continue to develop.

Shabu Mwangi shows his concern for the fate of Somalis (his father was one) with a painting on mbati that deals in clashing, angry colours with the treatment of Somalis by the Kenya government. It shows the flags of both nations and faces that howl in protest, while Patrick Mukabi’s life size figures are cut from scorched mbati taken from houses destroyed by ethnic violence. They are a warning to us not to repeat such madness.

Joseph Mbatia, Bertiers, has gained fame if not notoriety for homespun paintings that for me display irritating misogyny. He does however excel as a sculptor, welding his observations into whimsical statements of current affairs.

Here he shows us a smallish (55cm long by, say, 60cm high) tableau of a woman pulling a cart in which stands a donkey being ridden by a man. Woman is reduced to a beast of burden; the beast itself, donkey or man, is given a free ride.

Thus the state of the nation is shown in microcosm: Normality reversed, servant becomes the master and the real masters, the people, are bent to the bidding of those they have elected to serve. Inevitably, Bertiers being himself, spares us little and his donkey has a rather obvious penis. But there again, they do, don’t they.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media company based in Nairobi.