GALLERIES: Hope springs from a scent of death...

Saturday August 19 2017

Wall hanging and floor sculpture, and left, untitled paintings by Samuel Githinji. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


Thankfully, for an artist who sees death and destruction all around, Samuel Githinji brings a message of hope.

We are damaging the earth and ourselves in the process, his creations say, but out of the desperation this causes within him springs his belief that it can be overcome.

For Githinji, with his stitched screens, wire sculptures, ink and pencil drawings and vigorous Expressionist paintings executed on brown wrapping paper, is operating at the sharp edge of our humanity.

When viewing his work I am reminded of W.B. Yeat’s lines from The Second Coming:
“The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot

Four wall hangings, two mixed media paintings, six drawings and one wire sculpture all springing from Githinji’s obsession with our fate can be seen until early September at the Red Hill Art Gallery, off the road from Nairobi to Limuru.

Aged 28, and holding a diploma in fine art from the Buruburu Institute in Nairobi, Githinji has been a professional artist for the past six years.


His exhibition Decay – Survival – Healing is at first glance a random collection of disjointed propositions. Yet they meld into an overarching declaration of redemption.
To make it, Githinji reaches out to many sources and rather too heavily so.

His hangings, stitched together from small panels in bright colours (there is a lot of red, the colour of blood, chaos and death) are at once reminiscent of the Ghanaian El Anatsui and Kenya’s Justus Kyalo: El Anatsui for the vivid assemblage of found objects into a dazzling wall piece (in El Anatsui’s case bottle tops; in Githinji’s scraps of cloth) and Kyalo for the gaps, ragged holes and ripped lines torn into the cloth (with Kyalo environmental damage; for Githinji the tattered fabric of society).

There too is homage to the Kenyans Pater Walala and Gor Soudan; the latter freely acknowledged in the brief catalogue notes.

Walala frames fashion labels stitched together into sheets that dance with abstract pattern, sometimes left as they are, occasionally enhanced with gestural marks in paint and crayon, to attack the commercialisation of society.

And from Soudan, the most obvious reference of all, are inspired the sculpture made of twisted wires and the six drawings of nets that in swirling lines ebb, flow and shimmer like petrol on water.

Within Githinji’s hangings lurk faces and figures, emerging shakily but surely from the chaos. It is us; we are healing and thus surviving.

The stitches that hold together these hangings represent the repairing of our hopes and dreams; a healing as wounds are sutured and we are made whole. Beneath one, the largest, and lying on the floor is a patch of soil and wire that personifies decay, a human form that is the metaphysical collapse of our humanity.

The wire sculpture twisting on the wall and the fine-line drawings of nets around it (meticulous two-dimensional realisations of the sculpture) show us broken lives being knitted together.

For me, most impressive of all, were the two mixed media paintings (acrylic, pencil and pastel) each of a figure, its face concealed by a heavy bar; one green the other red. Green is the landscape and the way we are destroying it; red the death of the human spirit.

Hope? Well, at least the figures are still standing.

This exhibition is helped enormously by the usual excellent hang at Red Hill — spacious and at eye level — ensuring Githinji’s disturbing thoughts are given sufficient room to be examined individually yet are close enough to view as a unified statement.

It is not the most commercial of shows, as Red Hill owners the Rossler-Muschs would probably agree. For example, I cannot imagine anyone rushing from the gallery crying, “Give me that tattered blanket for my wall and get Githinji to sprinkle soil and wire over my carpet too,” but this is an exhibition that repays a visit.

Red Hill has a track record for this. Difficult artists, voices that should be heard, are welcomed there, provided the work is articulate and its formal qualities stand scrutiny.

It is a place that, like Nairobi’s One-Off and the Circle, is vital to the regional art scene because it offers high quality pieces frequently eschewing the instantly comprehensible in favour of considered work that slowly grows within us, adding to our understanding.

Does Githinji’s exhibition work? Is his statement coherent and valid? And do the media he chose enhance it? Yes to all three. But I would add this caveat: It would have been yet more forceful (and made him a better, more original artist in the process) had he created another lexicon and used those heavily quoted references more obliquely rather than as the main body of his work.

But Githinji is a young man with a long way to go — and it promises to be a fascinating journey.