The award for the most improved artist goes to…

Friday August 7 2015

From left: Cogs of the System, Status Quo and

From left: Cogs of the System, Status Quo and Palette Animals by Peter Ngugi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

By FRANK WHALLEY

If there were an award for the most improved artist of 2015 surely it would go to Peter Ngugi — even though we still have four more months to go.

I know this must seem patronising and arrogant of me (so what’s new?) but it is nonetheless true.

From a man producing highly finished little pictures of stylised animals — I once suggested they would be perfect for table settings or as mouse pads — he has suddenly matured into a lucid and formidable artist.

It would seem that his years of meticulous finishing — some would call it an almost anal attention to detail — has finally paid off. What turns out to have been an apprenticeship has left its mark in an apparently effortless finish that makes each picture a pleasure to view.

This high standard is a complement to his buyers; for them, only the best will do.

Now his talent spins like a Catherine wheel, showering sparks of creativity in all directions.

Its variety and his vision can be seen in some 80 paintings at the One Off gallery in Rosslyn, until September 2.

And they are not just pretty pictures either. This is beauty with a bite.

The first intimation that something was afoot came earlier this year when Ngugi exhibited several large oils following a residency in Lamu. They lamented the plight of fishermen, robbed of their livelihoods by a dawn-to-dusk curfew aimed at curbing terrorism.

I remarked then, “Ngugi grows in stature with every painting; an increasingly interesting artist getting to grips with a compelling subject.”

Now the political edge has been honed and the paintings are put to the service of his acerbic view of Kenya’s leaders — who, Ngugi believes, serve only themselves and their cronies, seeking power for their own advancement.

He also believes they are doing little if anything to groom a new generation to secure the country’s future, and in fact are almost wholly in thrall to the past generation of politicians who led the country to Independence and still exert a huge influence on affairs.

In other words, we are controlled by the past, with little regard for the future, with a traditional dash of greed thrown in.

He is not alone in this view of course. Michael Soi puts politicians in their place on a daily basis with his faux- cartoonish paintings. Humour is his weapon of choice.

And both Richard Kimathi and Peterson Kamwathi in their own quieter, but no less effective, ways wield sharp swords.

It cannot be coincidence that it is with these two artists that Ngugi comes closest to a shared visual language; with Kimathi in his quirky outlook, the quality of his paint and his immaculate presentation, and with Kamwathi in the groupings of his figures.

So how does this translate in paint?

Ngugi’s show is split into seven sections. All deal with the lost opportunities for youth that greed, corruption and an over-reliance on the past have created; some directly as in the Cogs of the System series, some more subtly as in the Status Quo and Ballot Box groups.

Cogs of the System are the most affected people, the jobless youths who hang around street corners in their estates; nothing to do, nowhere to go.
The largest pictures on show, they are confidently laid out with bold brushstrokes, in a vivid patchwork of colours.

It is tempting to see this fragmentation of the colour scheme as a metaphor for the disintegration of society — tempting but not what Ngugi intended.

He so enjoyed the random effect of the paint in his Cogs and Palette Animals series that he extended the idea to Cogs of the System. The colours are purely decorative. So long as the underlying drawing is correct the form holds — it is a graphic rather than a painterly approach.

Status Quo shows us the politicians with their brains, made of plastic bottle caps, hanging on the outside of their heads. A close look at the small print reveals that all the caps bear sell-by dates that are long past.

In the Ballot Box series, the message appears to be that you can vote how you like, it will make not a jot of difference to a system too deeply entrenched to change.

Ngugi returns to his helpless youths in Cogs; 12 shallow boxes in which the figures are cut out of the top sheet and raised above the surface of what appear to be used palettes… splodges and smears of sunny colours.

They are enchanting both for their unexpected construction, painstaking finish (that word again) and in the way the plastic beauty of the paint is glimpsed tantalisingly through the openings.

It is a device Ngugi also uses in the small stables gallery nearby, where the exhibition continues with a selection of expressionist portraits plus more than 30 Palette Animal pictures using the same box construction.

The artist draws precisely and his accurate fretworks frame and become foils for the riotous colours beneath.

Where we once thought of mouse pads, we now think of Animal Farm.

Original, imaginative and daring… this is an exhibition not to miss.

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