One good thing about Olivia Pendergast’s paintings is that they are unique.
With a high level of professional competence maintained throughout, they are instantly recognisable.
Another good thing is that walking into an exhibition by this American artist, now living in Nairobi, is like entering rooms filled with freshness, sunshine and light.
But then in spite of the paintings’ distinctive appearance, echoes and resonances begin to crowd in.
For Pendergast’s portraits, with their tiny heads, spindly limbs, huge hands and feet and lacy background decorations are vaguely reminiscent of the pin-headed wraiths in the paintings of the Kenyan Peter Elungat, while the way her subjects are spread over the paper are a little like the spatchcocked figures in Austrian Egon Schiele’s masterful portraits, lacking only their nervous, jumpy line.
In Pendergast’s work the oil paint is applied in thin glazes, with vigorous overdrawing in pencil or, in some cases, scratched in with the wrong end of a brush.
They might lack Schiele’s famous line but what they do not lack is commitment, both to their subjects and to the practice of painting.
It struck me as odd therefore, viewing Pendergast’s current show of around 24 paintings at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi, that she has made the faces of her 20 or so portraits all look rather similar—male or female, child or adult and whether full face, three-quarters or in profile; all that is bar one.
That one is what I took to be a profile head of the artist herself in one of the most engaging—and enigmatic—paintings in the exhibition. Called Spirit Weavers, it shows her seated next to another, heavily pregnant, woman, a raven perched on the artist’s clasped hands.
At first sight this could be read as a comment on the oneness Pendergast states she feels with her subjects, and as such one of the few paintings in this show with any sort of narrative. In fact it has little to do with Kenya, having been painted in the US for a festival of herbal medicine.
Its inclusion is therefore interesting, but bizarre; particularly as the expectant woman in the painting looks as though she has stepped straight out of one of the other works in this exhibition.
Is it then a nod to the universal sisterhood, or is it consistent with another feature of these paintings—that this artist is presenting us with a symbol and not flesh and blood; offering us an appearance, but with no sense of what has been called, “the moment of captured being?”
This possibility is reinforced by the fact that in most of her portraits the eye is shown without iris and pupil; a trait that ramps up a feeling of detachment. It is as though, like the marble busts of Ancient Greece and Rome with their blank gaze, Pendergast is offering us an ideal.
Given her reductive style, Pendergast is at her best when shunning distracting background patterns, as can be seen in Fisherman on White, a large painting (119cmx92 cm) in which the single figure in a white shirt sits on a white bench against a white wall, and in Brothers (100cmx73 cm) in which she hints at their playfulness, one with his arm around the other’s neck.
For those who think that less is more, there is a vitrine displaying three pen and ink portrait studies, three more in watercolours and three in oils.
Almost all of her paintings are really studies. There is little narrative, few props to give context, make a statement or show us something of her subjects’ lives.
Pendergast’s sitters are mostly those she meets in the capital’s sprawling settlements, notably of Kawangware and Kibera. They are presented pristine in T-shirts and crew necks, in aprons and vests, in dresses and simple shirts. There is no hint of their enduring struggle against poverty.
The artist’s paintings of animals display a tenderness and understanding of anatomy that makes them much more than a sidelight, few though there are.
There is a dog and a marvellous cat called Maude, a tabby and white, stretching across the paper. Nearby, one woman holds a goat that steals the scene.
But let no one doubt Pendergast’s commitment to the people she paints. Like many artists in this region, she gives up much of her own time to teach art; in her case to street kids—and a selection of their work is shown alongside hers in the Loft gallery at One-Off.
Top of the lot was Sleeping Cat, by the prolific John Cahna, a 21-year-old who contributes 10 of the 21 works on show.
The other artists are Charles Gitonga, Hillary Otieno, James Muingi, Chris Don, Brian Racha and Peter Gitau.
The teaching sessions are organised by the Alfajiri project, based at Kasarani.
So for sure Pendergast puts her money where her mouth is—and it must be catching because for once I did the same and must now declare an interest...I bought Cahna’s Sleeping Cat.