You can say a lot with a little, and happily two current exhibitions just a few kilometres apart prove that point.
One is of paintings the other of drawings, but in each case the only colours used are black and white.
Ok, so black is actually the absence of any colour and white the product of all colours merged, as a children’s whizz wheel will prove, but leaving pedantry aside both exhibitions demonstrate the versatility and range that can be wrought from such a restricted palette.
Interestingly, the artists, Churchill Ongere and Samuel Githui, both add an extra dimension by choosing coincidentally to work on coloured paper; black for Ongere’s paintings and brown for the drawings by Githui.
Ongere also augments his paintings with the traces of netting, handfuls of gravel, leaves and bizarrely, a few bananas.
Fifteen of his wondrous works can be seen at the Red Hill Art Gallery off the road to Limuru, where owners Hellmuth and Erica Rossler-Musch have arranged their usual impeccable hang… lots of space between the paintings, all at eye level, and the numbering and other information present but discreet.
In an exhibition called Suspensions, Ongere offers everyday objects — stools, chairs, open boxes and those bananas — as objects of art; metaphors for uncertainty, chaos and even violence as they float, swirl and tumble across the picture plane.
Specifically, the open boxes represent portals of many possibilities; anything could come out of them.
Picked out in white ink, they dance against a cleverly worked background of more commonplace objects laid on the paper and then spray painted, revealing the shadows of their presence like reversed stencils.
Thus broken chairs fall like snowflakes across the richly textured background of scattered shapes of gravel, a stool sinks upended over a pattern of leaves, and an open box floats over a shifting sea of bananas.
Bananas? Why bananas? Ongere explains, “I was trying to introduce something innocent in an environment that was violent and disturbed, to restore its purity.”
If it is true that artists’ fame can be measured in part by the extent to which their ideas and techniques inspire others, then Kenyans Peterson Kamwathi and Willie Wambugu have even more reasons to be satisfied.
The concept of floating objects indicating uncertainty and chaos was expressed by Kamwathi in his ongoing Constellation and Sediment series.
It was he too who pioneered in East Africa the idea of spray painting his backgrounds through, for example, pieces of lace.
And it was Wambugu who in a succession of exhibitions elevated household goods like keys, sofas and garden tools into objects of art… an idea owed originally, I think, to the American Jim Dine with his etchings of bolt cutters, hammers and spanners.
Also working in black and white is Samuel Githui who is showing 400 drawings — yes, 400 — at the Circle Gallery in Lavington, Nairobi under the title Transformations.
They are of the Kenyan dancer Kefa Oiro caught sequentially in performance as he moved in and out of light.
They present rather like stills from a film recording his movement, gestures and form echo too the 1870s photographic studies of human and animal motion by Eadweard Muybridge, used as a source incidentally by Francis Bacon.
The drawings, each around A4 and on rough brown paper, are hung in six large groups, of from 16 to 204 drawings, and their cumulative effect is astonishing.
It is as though we are peering over Githui’s shoulder as he works with broad vigorous strokes of his chalks, distilling Oiro’s postures into bold blocks of light and shade, creating a purely painterly effect.
So, two stunning exhibitions both featuring works in black and white and both on at roughly the same time in the same city.
A coincidence? Probably not. For both these shows involved Don Handa, gallery manager at the Circle, who wrote the introduction to Suspensions and curated Transformations.
He clearly has a penchant for the complex possibilities that simplicity can bring, a delight in the purity of form offered by black and white — and a killer eye for art and how to present it.