ART: Summertime blues reds and greens

Friday July 05 2019

'Juicy Fruit' by James Mbuthia. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


The seemingly endless hot summer that stretched from January to April—and how long ago that now seems—saw the painter James Mbuthia hard at work in his studio finding all the inspiration he needed around his home.

And what inspired him beneath the clear blue sky of summer was fruit. Lots of it.

Among the apples, mangoes and pears he saw mostly watermelons—sleek and striped green on the outside; pink, moist and fertile with seeds on the inside.

For him they summed up the bounty of Nature and the pictures he created were a hymn to her abundance, the fruitfulness, in fact, of a richly endowed land. In turn, that became his metaphor for productivity, for growth and for the love that creates cohesion within a family life.

A part-time pastor, Mbuthia worships too with his brush, paying tribute to his Maker for all that he sees.

Based at his home in Banana Hill, to the west of Nairobi, Mbuthia saw little need this year to seek inspiration far from his studio.


It was there waiting for him on his doorstep, in the fruit and vegetable stalls of the market, and reflected by the congregations that gathered for weekly worship.

Then as summer began to slide towards the long rains, Mbuthia ventured further, to his plot near Naivasha, and to a farm he knows up the hill in Tigoni where sunflowers grow.

His palette slowly began to change as he followed the seasons, from the hot reds and yellows straight from the tube that reflected the heat of summer to the cooler greys and ochres as it began to fade towards the cooler times.

The results can be seen in a series of paintings shown recently at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi, in an exhibition that has now moved to the atrium of the Sankara Hotel in the capital’s Westlands—a satellite space for the One Off—where it will remain for the next two months.

All the works, whether of single figures or family groups, focus on Mbuthia’s observations of unity, fellowship and mutual care… and of the 17 paintings on show, seven contain careful depictions of fruit.

His painting Juicy Fruit, of a seated woman holding a watermelon, signifies both the fruitfulness of nature and the fecundity of family life; her vibrant red dress with its green edgings reflecting the heat of summer.

In Fruit Vendor, the message is the same, as we have again the complementary reds and greens—red in the background and green in the hat that forms a halo around her face—and the central figure offering a bountiful harvest; this time an armful of apples.

At Home is another single figure (as is a narrow majority of the paintings; nine out of the 17) made possibly a little later in the season, with red still present but now as the predominant background colour, and the figure wearing a pale blue polka dot blouse and with a black cat sat on the window sill.

Later still, with summer waning, Mbuthia travels to his plot and once back in his studio recalls Somewhere in Naivasha on a coarse hessian with a palette of blues, greens and a gentler yellow, before venturing out again to Tigoni and his friend’s farm, after which he painted Sunflowers, a woman in a dark dress with flowers bursting out at her breasts—a robust affirmation of her splendour.


'Somewhere in Naivasha' by James Mbuthia. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

The cycle ends in Girl with Clover that shows us another woman, her face part blue like the Scottish warriors decorated with wood in the Mel Gibson vehicle Braveheart and the background now a haze of blue and grey.

In all these works, the artist eschews conventional perspective and instead flattens his imagery onto the picture plane, creating decorative patterns both within the figures and in the backgrounds.

Luckily he has an instinctive sense of composition while his occasional forays into landscape show rows of neatly clipped trees, houses and usually a church balancing on humpy farmland hills.

It is a simple yet effective recipe for paintings that have about them something of the illustrative simplicity of children’s picture books.

Mbuthia has followed the seasons, drawn his conclusions, and now offers them to us in a visual language that is easy to interpret.

There is something direct and charming about these works, and they are indeed illustrating something that touches us deep within, whether we follow any particular faith or not; a thread perhaps, that binds us with the common desire for love and peace.

For Mbuthia, everything he records is the work of his Maker and he offers his praises in a succession of paintings that become acts of worship and expressions of belief.