Travel can inspire great art.
To take a couple of extreme examples, in 1891 Paul Gauguin chucked in his job as a stockbroker and left Paris for the South Seas, starting with Tahiti. There he made the paintings for which he became famous. Described as sophisticated primitivism they show the daily lives of the people he found there as he became ever more immersed in their culture.
Then we have David Hockney, arguably by now the word’s best-known living artist.
In the mid-Sixties, he quit the grey gloom of West Yorkshire for Los Angeles, where he found the strong light, emotional freedom and inspiration he needed to chronicle a hedonistic West Coast lifestyle that featured the wealthy, the splash of water and outdoor swimming pools.
Many other artists have travelled less far and become identified with particular places in their own homelands, John Constable with England’s Stour Valley for instance, while locally I find it impossible to drive around Wangige to the west of Nairobi or near Lake Naivasha without thinking of Patrick Kinuthia’s spare and rapid landscapes.
And it is one of Kinuthia’s followers — one of the best of them — who has also found travel a key to his art.
ART AND TRAVEL
Coster Ojwang’, who has been mentored by Kinuthia for the past two years, comes from Kisumu but is based in the Kenyan capital and it is his journeys between the two cities that fired his imagination and gave him subjects to paint.
You can choose from two basic routes; via the tea farms of Tigoni, Limuru and Kericho or through the Great Rift Valley. And it is those rolling, fertile hills and valleys that Ojwang’ made his own, with painting after painting of them, plus occasional views of Lake Victoria and Nairobi’s urban sprawl.
You can see the result in his current exhibition, bizarrely called Tales of Strokes, in which he is showing 21 paintings, all acrylics, at the Polka Dot Gallery in Karen.
While the paintings of Nairobi are accurate and recall the smells and colours of the city, the authority of big buildings and the cheerful chaos of the streets, it is the paintings of tea farms and the lush countryside that catch the eye, almost as though one subject were duty, the other love.
It is in these that the variety and beauty of East Africa is laid before us, in handy bite-sized packages to enjoy.
Ojwang’s formal skills are now a given, in that the horizon really does look further away than the foreground, that the fields interlock realistically and the trees are firmly rooted, rising majestically from the soil (as opposed to floating like balloons, as you sometimes see with lesser artists.)
And both tonally and compositionally, by and large, he gets it right.
In Kondele, a lake view, a canopied boat sits so well in the water that you just know when the first passenger steps aboard its weight will shift, and in Kijabe, a watery sunlight bathes the fields. The earth is already sodden in Kimende, with the clouds telling us more rain is on the way.
A red roofed farmhouse in Kericho Tea Farm draws the eye towards the play of light that turns the plantation into a patchwork; while in Tigoni Tea Farm, a group of trees takes up the foreground, the soil given relevant dashes of red, cream and grey, with the tea bushes forming a band across the middle ground, beneath a lowering sky.
It may well be that these scenes are not entirely literal, even though they are believable. He could have moved a farmhouse a bit here, even created one there, or added a tree or two to harmonise the composition.
It’s a trick of the trade.
Ojwang’ is using his colours more carefully too. Gone are most of the attention-seeking dabs of scarlet, yellow and blue that marked some of his earlier landscapes. Some artists still do it. These strokes are supposed to add dynamism to a painting but what they actually do is to make it look like an entrant for Amateur Night at a village hall near you.
Thankfully Ojwang’ now seems to be making each colour count; it is there only when really needed to add conviction. The only downside to this exhibition is that with it Ojwang’ is consolidating his strengths if not actually marking time.
His previous exhibition at the Polka Dot included two superb small paintings of Gilgil in which he not only described the view but also investigated the landscape, and with a Fauvist palette told us something unexpected and exciting about it, creating new realities. (I must declare an interest here; I put my money where my mouth is and bought one of them).
So although I appreciate his latest work for the skills he deploys, I discovered nothing new about the Kenyan farmlands; simply confirmation that they are enchanting.
Nonetheless, this exhibition would reward a journey of your own — to Karen and the Polka Dot.