Powerless in the face of violence

Friday October 16 2015

The Old Watchman, by Shabu Mwangi.  PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

The Old Watchman, by Shabu Mwangi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 


We have heard a lot about migrants lately.

Apparently they are massing on the borders of Europe, machetes clenched between their teeth ready to rape our women, enslave our children, steal our jobs and generally brighten the lives of all who shelter within the Schengen zone.

On the other hand, they may be decent folk trying desperately to find somewhere safe for themselves and their families.

It must be a bit scary trying to sleep at night wondering if you are going to be barrel bombed by your own president.

While considering the nuances of Middle East politics, it is worth remembering that the horrors there also lurk closer to home.

Kenya is no stranger to refugees — whether internal following the post-election violence of 2008, or the half a million Somalis and Sudanese who fled wars to reach the Dadaab refugee camp. It is not only in Europe that the subject has relevance.


And as usual, artists are ahead of the curve. Peterson Kamwathi is said to be working on a suite of drawings referring to the mass movement of millions — the biggest since World War Two — and already up to speed is that engaging if allusive painter Shabu Mwangi.

He starts from pole position, being the son of a Somali immigrant whose life is a mystery to him, and his latest exhibition at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn Nairobi (on until October 19) encapsulates his concern for the plight of refugees.

There, 14 paintings on the walls with another 14 earlier works wrapped in cellophane and propped against a window, speak for the millions on the move; those who have found hope in new countries and those yet to attempt escape.

Titles include Border Control, Hope at the Tarmac, Nationalism Descending and West and East Tangle (the latter bizarrely bearing labels “West” and “East” rather like a bad cartoon that needs help to make its point.)

The paintings, mixed media on canvas, paper or board, are thematic and like all Mwangi’s work, while different in scale and strength, are unmistakably by the same hand.

Here is an artist who has created his own visual language and is now energetically enlarging his vocabulary.

One of the seminal paintings of this exhibition, The Old Watchman, arose from a recent residency in Lamu when one of the artist’s friends was hurt during a break-in.

He lies injured on his bed, his fingernails like the claws of a wounded animal, looked over by another friend at the bedhead, and at his feet the elderly watchman who was impotent to intervene.

The painting speaks of the vulnerability of people in the face of violence, and becomes a microcosm of the plight of refugees forced to flee their homes.
Technically, I thought it was a tour-de-force.

The paint, as is usual with Mwangi, was applied with a silky perfection and the palette beautifully balanced with sudden shrieks of colour against quieter fields.

In The Old Watchman cerulean is laid like a carpet beneath the bed while the victim’s bloodstained clothes complement a spread studded with small circles of vivid green like the unblinking eyes of peacock feathers. Both resound against the pale grey backdrop of the wall.

The tall bedposts form a four-cornered cage that further defines and controls the viewing space — the stage upon which the action takes place.

This deliberate enclosure of the subject, coupled with the flaring colours that highlight many of his other works — lemon, magenta, purple — pay homage to Francis Bacon, one of the greatest figurative painters of the 20th century and one whom Mwangi greatly admires.

Mwangi’s figures, bending at unnatural angles and sometimes slumped in despair, echo Bacon’s distortions and his evisceration of the human form.

Their torsos fat, the heads distended and the spindly legs barely able to support their weight, they slide across the picture plane like shadows stitched to our heels. Their feet are cat-like; they seem only half human.

Yet there is something about them that elicits sympathy.

Perhaps it is the realisation that they too are us, and that by offering them our love we can respect ourselves a little more.