There is always something new out of Africa, the old saying goes; and Richard Kimathi is here to prove that it remains just as true today.
For Kimathi is an endlessly inventive artist.
Each of his exhibitions offers a new and frequently astonishing take on his constant themes; our place in an ever-changing society and the inherent conflict between people and politics.
His skill in presenting these subjects in interesting and unusual ways has made him one of the region’s most seminal painters.
It is not so much that where he goes others follow—although his sly drawing and paint technique are exemplary—rather that his work, throwing out sparks like a Catherine wheel, inspires others to take up the challenge and see how they can respond to similar conundrums.
On a more mundane level he also addresses our responses to the social and political issues of the day; elections, gender fluidity, drink, drugs and any day now, rock and roll.
Kimathi’s range of materials is wide and his reinventions of the picture surface remarkable; he paints on canvas, domestic pans and tin sheeting, and brings his subjects into our space through the use of bas relief, coloured cords, cut-outs pasted onto the backgrounds, slashing and stitching and in his latest series, groups of figures hanging free from the canvas.
His diffident figures with their overlarge heads set on sloping shoulders and their expressions at once perplexed and quizzical are ciphers for us all, beaten and bewildered by rapidly changing social mores and the cheating and conniving of politicians.
They can be seen in an exhibition of more than 60 paintings at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi.
Twelve of his latest works are shown in the Stables annex—now effectively the main space—while earlier works, some 36 in all, are stacked against the wall with a further 15 lining the original Loft gallery.
This effectively makes the exhibition a retrospective and while not curated as such (the paintings all came from stock and were not augmented by collectors’ choice examples) nevertheless enables us to see how he has developed since he began showing at the One Off around 2009.
The 12 new works at the heart of the show, include six painted on tin; five from his Conversations series, which realise visually the belief that a problem shared is a problem solved, plus Grown Up, in which the background and two figures of young boys are slashed and then carefully stitched back together.
This painting is Kimathi’s judgement on the wounds suffered on the way to attaining maturity in a damaged society.
Why tin? The reason is simple and without deep significance. After making a series of two-dimensional sculptures from tin sheeting, which he then painted, Kimathi decided he liked the certainty of the surface and began to use it for his easel painting too.
It has form; Old Masters often painted on copper.
The large painting Rosy Cheek is of a man who has just thumped himself in the face — a simple allegory for a bad decision that rebounded on him — while Inked shows a group of four disillusioned voters, their hands stained by the proof they had cast their ballot.
And that leaves the two most imaginative and impressive pieces in the exhibition—Heaven is Dry and Confusing Sky.
In both, the figures hang freely from the neck down as the canvases tilt towards the viewer; they are left floating, a metaphor for what the artist sees as the false promise of salvation through religion, and also a nod to the rising numbers of rural suicides.
Supporting these keynote paintings are the older works, either stacked against the walls or, in the case of two of them, hung near the entrance. These are equally high key paintings from 2014—one from the Toddler series and one of a lithe cat, symbol of cunning, from 2015—when Kimathi employed creams and pastel shades.
Two more of the Toddler group can be seen in the Loft, where surrounding them in the ground floor gallery are many of the paintings that helped to make Kimathi’s name as an asset to the East African art scene.
They include the vibrantly coloured monkeys, pigs and weasels, some within cityscapes, from 2009-2012; the awkwardly embracing couples from 2012; the soldiers in pyjamas from the same year; the heads with bas-relief eyelids, mouths and painted cords for hair of 2014; the semi-abstract yellow skulls of 2017; and the haunting faces, blue on blue, from last year.
Many of these canvases are huge (around 140cm by 135cm) and their powerful imagery would dominate any domestic setting.
As well as serving as a superb primer, this exhibition offers a fine selection of paintings from most of Kimathi’s key series and demonstrates the verve, meticulous finishing, technical skill and constant innovation that has defined his career so far.
It is a tour de force.