Sensibility that's driven by respect

Saturday May 25 2019

'Arise', by Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos.

'Arise', by Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

FRANK WHALLEY
By FRANK WHALLEY
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One of the region’s premier galleries, the One-Off, is celebrating its 25th year of operation.

And it is doing so in style.

For its owner and curator Carol Lees decided to make the landmark a tribute to the collectors who have kept her gallery afloat, with a gala night and exhibition of 33 of some of the best paintings, drawings and prints (but strangely, no sculptures) to be found in East Africa.

They are currently on show at the One-Off’s satellite gallery in Rosslyn Mall, Nairobi.

Lees, whose commitment and taste have kept the One-Off going, shows nothing she does not “admire” (a nuanced difference from “like”), whether for its formal qualities or for its “authenticity,” an attribute that while applying to established painters, also clarifies her support for several self-taught artists.

It is no accident therefore that, while wildly different in style, all the work in this selling exhibition has been selected by a sensibility driven by respect for the artists and their practice.

And that explains the presence of both the painterly wildlife scenes of Timothy Brooke and three avant garde portraits of former Mau Mau women, by Wambui Kamiru Collymore, known for her cutting edge installations.

BLOCKBUSTERS

Blockbuster pieces abound in this show with key works by Beatrice Wanjiku, Peterson Kamwathi and Richard Kimathi. Wanjiku’s two paintings from her series Resume your Flesh and Form, and her fifth painting from the Released in the End of Craving group confirm her position as one of the region’s brightest talents.

As artworks they are compelling, helping to consolidate her growing international reputation, earned through an appearance at the Venice Biennale and being voted the top African artist at the New York art fair. With their open brushwork and brooding colouring shot through with touches of scarlet and white, these are uncompromising works that glow with a dark humanity.

Kamwathi, the only Kenyan with work in the British Museum collection, is showing the giant diptych (210x230cm) The Journey, the Destination that deals with one of his major concerns, migration.

In this collage, figures float across a void echoing the contortions migrants go through to reach their goals; a powerful piece that becomes more moving with each viewing.

Kimathi surprises by reloading his polemic — the failure of human communication and its disastrous consequences. Of his series of four paintings, called Conversation, one is made of tin sheeting meticulously stitched together and shows figures whose faces are distorted by wounds and silenced screams.

In all four works — the other three are canvas figures laid on canvas — his palette has returned from the sonorous blues and singing yellows and reds of his recent work to ice cream hues, which increases their power; velvet glove but iron fist.

Paul Onditi offers two of his most recent paintings that, for once, do not include his Everyman figure Smokey. Instead, they are based on the patterns and colours of bacteria under a microscope, reflecting the artist’s satirical view of a society infected by corruption, pollution and all manner of ills.

Along the wall from them, Florence Wangui demonstrates yet again that she is now established as one of the region’s rising stars. Wangui’s velvety charcoal line is seen to advantage in a drawing of two women — herself in substance and in spirit — mysteriously entitled This time ask the real question, plus one of her recent oils, also of two women (one of flesh, the other a wraith) called The Reconciliation.

CHARACTER

In her unrelenting self-examination and obvious relish for materiality — rich charcoal, luscious paint — Wangui is moving into Beatrice Wanjiku territory but without, so far, that artist’s physical and psychological evisceration of the figure.

Wangui’s is a quieter yet disturbing discourse, and Kenya is fortunate to have two such talents in the same city at the same time; and the One-Off even more so to have snaffled them both.

There are also two exquisite stylised drawings, pencil on paper, of moths and of jasmine flowers by Mandy Bonnell, who has been with the One-Off since its inception, plus the striking mixed media Weaving, (green yellow) by Lisa Milroy, the storied Canadian painter, who is Lees’s most recent catch. Its companion piece is in the Tate.

Thom Ogonga shows a couple of forceful woodcuts, while a boisterous canvas by Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos decorates one end wall, so large and colourful it could stop a matatu.

Greeting visitors is a riotous pink bull by Ehoodi Kichapi, while other attractions include a huge Peter Ngugi of three Kenyan dandies, plus paintings by James Mbuthia, Elias Mong’ora, Michael Musyoka and Olivia Pendergast, and a mixed media triptych by David Thuku.

It is odd that there is no sculpture, although the One-Off regularly shows whimsical pieces by Bertiers (so much stronger than his objectifying paintings) and Harrison Mburu, both of whom make quirky figurative works in welded steel.

No matter, Lees plans to redress the balance with an exhibition of sculpture in a new garden space, slated for August.

Meanwhile, her current show succeeds spectacularly in meeting its dual aims — to celebrate the continued existence of her landmark gallery and as a vibrant tribute to the collectors who support it.