GALLERIES: A silent sleeper in slashed art shock

Saturday February 9 2019

Samuel Githui artwork

Slashed... Mzee; and right, Safarini VII, by Samuel Githui. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

By FRANK WHALLEY
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Samuel Githui strikes me as one of those sleeper artists, working quietly away in the background and not one for the regular solo shows that come round like the seasons.

He remains independent, attached to no gallery, tied to no-one and nothing but a conviction of the value of his output.

Githui’s paintings can be found in many places around the region, and while aware of his work and that he is one of our better artists, generally you come across them in ones and twos — a landscape with cattle here, a street scene there — and they leave you wanting more.

His work pops up occasionally in mixed shows, usually followed by periods of silence. Then, when you can almost hear the hush, Githui is prone suddenly to break cover and dazzle you with a stunning show.

For when this artist really has something to say, he says it big time — and the results can be spectacular.

He broke free from his usual realist scenes of urban life in March 2014, for example, to produce 56 chalk drawings of a dancer, most made from life during the Circle Art Gallery’s Paper show. They were unexpected and widely admired.

Then he surprised us two years later with an installation incorporating a video about a man sold into slavery in Saudi Arabia. It formed a key part of the Arts to End Slavery exhibition curated by Rose Jepkorir at the Shift Eye Gallery, Nairobi.

He next raised eyebrows in 2017, with a group of 15 abstract paintings at Kuona Trust that found him looking for an inner balance of non-narrative composition, colour and emotional expression.

He told me then he was, “like a skydiver (hoping) the parachute will open just before hitting the ground.”

It was a bad, if instructive, landing.

After that Githui returned in July last year to the safer territory of the dance — and stunned gallery goers yet again with 400 black and white chalk studies of the dancer Kefa Oiro, made as he moved in and out of light.

Called Transformations, the exhibition was on for 10 brief days at the Circle’s Lavington base and it was unforgettable for its presence and the verve of execution; its appreciation of the play of light and the drawings’ solidity of form.

It would have made the name of any artist and was an almost impossibly hard act to follow. Even for him.

'Mzee'

Githui, now in his mid-40s, remains best known for his canvases of traffic jams, crowds, donkeys (symbolising the patient suffering of wananchi) and notably of people on bicycles, which for him are icons of their progress.

And it is back to the bikes that he turns in his current show of 14 paintings at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi, on until February 17.

Of these, only five are oil on canvas with the rest in acrylics, which Githui recently took up again as part of his continuing exploration of different media.

This exhibition sees him developing his subject’s possibilities, from the sedate single cyclist on a country lane to the risky chaos of riding in town; from an Impressionist flurry of brushwork in Miche suggesting movement, to the more focused academic examination of a busy street (Safarini VII), and along the way a study of bikes stacked for repair beneath a sunlit tree (Fundi).

These paintings celebrate the artist’s formal skills, with 13 of the 14 suggesting that, this time, Githui is merely holding ground while perhaps quietly preparing to surprise us with another blockbuster.

However, look further. There is one piece included surely to shock.

Mzee is a mixed media painting of an old man on his bike, heading away from the viewer. Ignore if you can the fact that for once Githui seems to have slipped up with his perspective, making the front wheel bigger than the back and instead ask yourself why the painting has been deliberately disfigured by nine vertical slashes.

The damage began with an unintentional cut by a palette knife. It could have been mended and painted over but Githui, sensing its possibilities, some days later seized on what for most would be an infuriating mistake and slashed repeatedly at the canvas, deliberately mutilating the picture plane.

Githui has turned an unfortunate accident into a painting that now speaks of art as artifice; representation removed from reality. What you are seeing is not a cyclist but one person’s manufactured view of him.

The painting thus stands as a savage homage to Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images — “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

The sleeper awakes.