The Rev Howell prays as satire provides an answer

Friday November 27 2015

Body and Blood, by Paul Ndema and right, Untitled, by Kamal Shah. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY

Body and Blood, by Paul Ndema and right, Untitled, by Kamal Shah. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY  

By FRANK WHALLEY

It can be great fun working for this newspaper, especially now that the Internet has given it a worldwide reach.

The other day a missionary e-mailed me from Papua New Guinea, telling me he was a regular reader who generally enjoyed the paper, and that it was therefore in the spirit of Christian forgiveness that he wanted me to embrace Jesus without delay.

This, he felt, would stop me being unkind to artists who were doing their best.

Meanwhile he would mention me in his prayers.

I fear the Rev Scott Howell could have his work cut out with this lost cause, but I have spotted another promising target for his invocations.

It is Paul Ndema of Kampala, a talented artist who seems to specialise in wry humour coupled with a strong sense of injustice.

He is exhibiting his latest paintings at the capital’s Makerere University, all of which deal with what he says are, “the effects of Christianity on most of us and me particularly, including brainwashing and sexual intolerance.”

Boldly drawn and featuring strong colours with the central figures (including self portraits in various guises) set against heavily patterned backgrounds, or made to look like stained glass windows, they are at their best both pointed and compelling.

Ndema, who has previously poked fun at the intolerance the Ugandan police, MPs and some bewildered sections of the Church show towards gays, exhibits often at the Afriart Gallery in the city’s Kamwokya district.

Afriart has recently signed up to show its artists in Kenya at a new gallery called The Art Space run by Wambui Kamiru, the noted installation artist — and Ndema, I should think, is a shoo-in for its walls.

For Kamiru, content is key and she is currently considering the problem faced by most gallery owners of any discernment: How to bring in the public and sell enough art to keep the business going while ensuring standards stay high enough to attract the best artists and collectors.

The Art Space, off Riverside Drive in Nairobi, is a converted bright yellow town house, with the inside walls painted white and coffee on the hob. There are around 60 paintings and drawings on show, plus some carved wooden poles that I was told were sculptures.

The artists offer a rich mixture of styles and abilities.

They include Shabu Mwangi, Hassan Ali (four untypical studies of heads), Cyrus Kabiru (a small and brilliant collage), Zihan Kassam, Kamal Shah, Rahab Shine, Denis Muraguri (matatus), Elias Mang’ora (three studies of a nude), Anne Mwiti (more nudes), Fawaz Elsaid (three watercolours of a heavily pregnant nude), and Aron Boruya with two spare, figurative paintings that mimic silk screen prints.

What was once the sitting room on the ground floor is the main gallery, while the three bedrooms upstairs are also being dedicated to art.

Of them, one is to focus on new and perhaps surprising work by established artists, or that by new talents; another, the smallest, to be called The Vault, will contain a mix of artworks across the price range — provisionally set at from Ksh28,000 ($280) to Ksh350,000 ($3,500) — some stacked in racks so visitors can spend happy moments flipping through them; while the third and potentially most interesting is to be given over to a variety of media that catch artists in the process of grappling with major themes.

The media, whether film, video, photography, digital or traditional print, plus the more common paintings, drawings and sculpture, is less important than the content. What is crucial to art exhibited there is that it should be significant and deal with some of the main matters affecting society.

Politics, sex, religion and good governance, while not spelt out by the gallery, spring to mind.

This I thought was a great idea but then I thought again. Should not all good art be about those sort of things anyway?

It would make sense therefore to devote the entire gallery to such content… chuck out the pretty landscapes, the girlies and the vases of flowers (unless irony is intended) and focus instead on the sweeping issues of the day.

A strong candidate for that room is Shabu Mwangi’s powerful Modernity Effect, currently on the ground floor.

In this sombre piece, mother and father, stand shrouded in black, grieving and dismayed over the bloodied body of their stillborn baby, which lies at the base of this forceful composition; the dark tones adding to the intensity of the work.

Also in the downstairs gallery is an untitled painting by Kamal Shah, which represents an interesting departure for an artist mostly concerned with tightly composed patterns in blues, beiges and maroons at the sickly end of the spectrum.

Yet this piece, with its backdrop of abstract splashes and smudges supporting a loosely arranged group of freely drawn heads, is beautifully balanced, quirky and expressionist, something of a tour de force.

If this signals an exploration that may become a continuing development in this artist’s career, it is, for me at least, profoundly to be welcomed. It is a courageous venture and deserves to succeed.

Bravo!

So thanks to Kamiru for giving East Africa another promising gallery — and thanks too to the Rev Howell, hopefully still prayerful and perhaps even now poised over his computer in Port Moresby.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.