GALLERIES: The rawness of being when love turns sour

Friday April 17 2020

'Dualities IV' by Beatrice Wanjiku. PHOTO |

'Dualities IV' by Beatrice Wanjiku. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

FRANK WHALLEY
By FRANK WHALLEY
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The bedroom is second only to the highway as the scene of slaughter .

So writes psychologist Dr Martin Blinder in his study of American domestic mayhem, Lovers, Killers, Husbands and Wives, a book studied by one of the region’s leading artists, Beatrice Wanjiku and one that perfectly complements her latest work.

Known for her penetrating and often disturbing examination of the human condition, Wanjiku’s current series of paintings — up to 10 and counting — is called Dualities of Excess and Repression.

It deals with violence against women in what should be their place of greatest safety, their home; the intimate space they share with the one they love.
Which is where Dr Blinder and his book come in.

What gives Wanjiku’s work added edge is the coronavirus pandemic with its lockdowns forcing unhappy couples into ever closer contact.

Women’s groups have warned of the consequences, and a British chief constable warned his force to be ready to deal with an upsurge in domestic violence, including murders.

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Two of Wanjiku’s Dualities are currently hanging at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, west of Nairobi, among the highlights of a show by gallery artists called Newest Works that replaces a scheduled exhibition by Lisa Milroy and Wambui Kamiru, postponed because of the virus crisis. For now, it can be accessed only by appointment or online at www.oneoffafrica.com.

Face to face, these works by Wanjiku, each 150 by 100cm, project real power and even online, although the scale and texture are absent, they radiate authority.
The key word in their titles, Dualities, highlights a constant in Wanjiku’s work; the interplay of opposites.

In her Straitjackets series, for example, the subjects were freedom and restriction, in her Mourning a Memory paintings at the One-Off last year the artist focused on the internal gaze and considered past and present.

Now she has taken the classic image of two figures, separate or merged, to highlight the contrast between our hopes and reality through the lens of places of safety that become arenas for violence.

As in most of this artist’s work the compositions are simple and strong; one or two figures set against neutral backgrounds. They are the actors, the canvas their stage.

In each, two figures align—one dark, the other lighter as Wanjiku modulates her palette of browns and pinks, the colours of our flesh. Close up can be seen glints of red, prussian blue and green, the scent of death and putrefaction.

Mysterious and moving, these messengers for the painter watch us as we watch them.

Same person

In spite of the possibility of a more literal interpretation, in which the figures are separate, each with its own sentient considerations, they are in fact one; each painting a metaphor for two parts of the same person.

For we are looking at the pale flesh of our aspirations set against the darker reality. We are seeing the rawness of being.

This is clearer in Dualities of Excess and Repression IV, the most immediately powerful of the two paintings, with the flesh of both figures stripped to show the whitened bones of a shared ribcage, as deceit and pretence are peeled back to reveal truth. The midriff of the two images merge and contain a single foetus.

This symbolises the artist’s belief that systems that suffer from inbuilt inequality, where laws are made mainly by men and impact on women, encourage men to turn on their loved ones.

The foetus exemplifies Wanjiku’s disgust at a recent change in abortion law in Alabama, US, which took away a woman’s right to choose.

“Humanity gets lost in the mechanism of law-making,” Wanjiku told me. “My current paintings are about who we are and what we want to become.”

Researching the way that loss of humanity can lead to domestic violence, the artist found that in 2018-19 there were at least 47 cases of murder or manslaughter of women by their husbands or lovers on file in Kenya alone.

In the other work, Dualites of Excess and Repression II, the paler female form is sharply delineated while the other threatens to envelope it, projecting this looming symbol of reality as a harbinger of death.

Both these paintings are in Wanjiku’s instantly recognisable style; sonorous and brooding with a compelling beauty born of the skillful manipulation of a restricted palette and mastery of form.

It is the weight of the message combined with its seductive presentation that defines world class art.

And these two paintings, surely, are world class.