Richard Kimathi has a way of getting under our skin. His figures, always edgy, often verge on downright unsettling.
There is a growing sense of unease as we view their ghostly heads with pale moon faces and see them confronting us, huddled together and apparently trying to stare us out — perversely involving us in their discussions while simultaneously excluding us from their circle.
It is this dichotomy of engagement and alienation that hallmarks much of Kimathi’s work.
And in his latest exhibition he takes this even further with two single figures and two groups cut from sheet steel then painted, plus a series of 12 faces on painted steel pans into which expressions have been hammered, chiselled and welded.
Half paintings, half sculpture, they can be seen at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi, until July 25.
And a fascinating if worrying show they make.
Kimathi’s previous exhibition at the One-Off saw some of his figures hanged from trees (referencing his concern about what he notes is an increasing number of rural suicides) while others stood around like zombies, unable or unwilling to act.
It would have been more comfortable to ignore his quiet truths, yet to have done so would have been to disregard a major part of Kimathi’s value as an artist — his ability to make us focus on a dark and dystopian culture through a unique vocabulary forged to examine our foibles as part of the sweep of societies’ ills.
Along with, say, Peterson Kamwathi and Beatrice Wanjiku, he is among the handful of East African artists whom others admire and study closely both for technique and ideas… restlessly inventive, always challenging, ceaselessly observing what is usually called the human condition.
In short, he is one of those setting the pace.
This latest show is called, appropriately, On the outside looking in; a catch-all title that refers both to the artist, to his figurative creations and to ourselves.
By painting on steel sheets he has again astonished us, maintaining his habit of being one step ahead of the curve.
And by having his full-length figures positioned on the gallery floor, within our space, making us part of their observations, he has again forced us to pay attention through a two-way discourse we cannot avoid.
An intrinsic part of Kimathi’s opus is the respect he commands through his battery of formal skills.
His compositions are tight, unified with not a mark out of place, while here, by using soft watercolour brushes to apply a mixture of oils and industrial paints that give a liquid, seamless luminosity, he continues to delight with another of his characteristics — an immaculate finish.
The welding marks and chisel cuts are cleaned off; the edges of the steel sheets beautifully beaded.
His palette is typically quiet, even more restrained than usual, this time mostly using combinations of cerulean and Prussian blues darkened with hints of black. His accents of yellows, pinks and off-white gleam rather than shout; all is soft, subdued and vaguely otherworldly.\
The cut out figures — a man holding his head, another called Me First seeking attention with one arm raised, a group of four peering out at us, and yet another single figure of a man holding a cloud above his head — are metaphors for the way we live… looking at life hoping to be a vital part of it but not always succeeding.
Then come the heads, painted on the backs of shallow pans each around 60cm in diameter and bought from a hardware store; the sort often used by street vendors to fry crisps.
In some the teeth are bared in a grimace, the eyes round and open without the protection of eyelids, staring back at us in mixture of shock and wonder.
“Is this what you are?” they seem to ask.
And in a reversal not uncommon when facing Kimathi’s powerful paintings, there is that discomforting sense that it is they who are the visitors, on the outside looking in at us, the exhibits.
But before we become convinced that the lunatics have taken over the asylum, we should recognise these as prescient, persuasive pieces, in all likelihood cloned from our own DNA
They offer yet more proof as to why Richard Kimathi, freshly returned from the Venice Biennale where he showed three paintings in the ad-hoc Kenya pavilion, is becoming increasingly recognised as an excellent artist of truly international stature.
Long respected at home, abroad it was the Americans who spotted his strengths first when, in 2000, one of his paintings was selected to appear on a United Nations postage stamp along with those by a couple of other, rather better known artists — Vermeer and Matisse.
And with that on your CV why should only the sky be the limit?