The first thing to say about Richard Kimathi’s paintings is that they are unnervingly beautiful. Their forms and colours, and the seemingly effortless flow of his paint could melt the soul.
Other things to say about them are that as well as being unnerving in their contrast between the disarming brilliance of the medium and the sharp jab of the message, they are challenging, controversial, beguiling and ultimately convincing.
Everything you want from a painting really.
Then there is the narrative that drives Kimathi to the easel each day… the endless search for meaning in life, in society, in the way we interact and in particular disregard our minorities, ride roughshod over anyone and anything different from ourselves.
You don’t do that? Well, you’re better than me because whenever I visit a show by Kimathi, I am left with the uneasy feeling that I have been found out; gently and with infinite courtesy called to account.
His paintings are, to quote the artist and writer Thom Ogonga, “uncomfortable.”
And that’s just the start of it. His paintings are indeed “uncomfortable” and you can see for yourself just how discomforting Kimathi can be, in his current exhibition at the One-Off Art Gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi. (Ogonga, by the way, wrote the excellent introduction to his work in the catalogue that accompanies the show.)
Can't look away
For two more weeks in the new Stables galleries at the One-Off hangs Bare Knuckle, in which Kimathi takes on prejudice against male homosexuality, using that as a symbol for our intolerance of other lives and beliefs.
In all these works, Kimathi continues to make his figures cutouts, which he glues to the canvas before painting.
This technique, which he has used for some five years, projects the subject from the picture plane, reflecting the artist’s increasing interest in sculpture, creates greater intimacy between painting and viewer, and has the happy side-effect of making it easier to adjust the final composition.
For me the star of the show is Heart Beat, an elegant painting of a boxer, one fist raised to his chest and the other dangling as he stares out at the viewer with an expression so melancholy yet timeless that it is utterly compelling.
You cannot look away.
The boxer, one eye reddened by a blow, has taken a hiding but while dejected his heart still beats, and there is therefore still hope as he readies himself to battle on.
The introspection of his gaze, the determination to carry on despite temporary defeat, echoes faces seen in the great religious works of the Renaissance.
This boxer, while totemic and not a likeness, might also stand for the artist himself and by extension for all artists serious about their work.
Typically of Kimathi, it is also appealing on a formal level. Against a neutral background of blues and greys with stains of violet and rose red, the boxer confronts eternal truths while wearing green and yellow leggings. They reminded me of the sort of sportswear favoured in the early 1900s by swimmers, circus strongmen and, indeed, prizefighters.
I was reminded too of Barack Obama’s comment after the death of Aretha Franklin… that in her music we could glimpse the divine; an insight that applies equally to great art; and surely in the strength, humility and pathos of this painting we have great art.
This spirituality is revealed in another painting from this exhibition, called A Meeting with God, in which a guru or a disciple sits cross legged with his arms upraised and fingers in the classic yoga position called guyan mudra. Around him swirls a shower of tiny coloured triangles, glittering like stardust — his spiritual aura.
Other blockbusters include Work in Progress (the title, not the state of play) which shows 15 boys stretching to hold aloft a giant phallus, symbolic of their quest to end their sexual ambivalence; Face to Face, in which a puzzled young man cradling another huge phallus confronts his own sexuality; and Honesty, which shows five boys in a line struggling to understand their feelings.
Then there are the small distillations of his oeuvre — single heads, each 37cm by 31cm, wearing expressions at once quizzical and yearning, and a group of five paintings of full-length figures that capture the doubts and fears that come to us in the dead of the night.
Previous topics for Kimathi have included the incidence of rural suicides, the objectivisation of women, and corrupt and devious politicians, painted as clowns.
Unfortunately, given the world we inhabit he is unlikely to run out of subjects any time soon.
Meanwhile, Kimathi’s irresistible message seems to be, “Let there be understanding, tolerance and love for everyone, please.” And as this exhibition proves, it is delivered yet again in an achingly beautiful package that marks him out as one of our foremost painters.
After all, Kimathi is the artist whose painting Living Single, of a young mum with her two children, was printed by the UN on a postage stamp to commemorate the millennium. Only two other painters were given that honour — Vermeer and Matisse.