"Ceci n’est pas une pipe” — This is not a pipe — wrote the Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte on his painting of a smoker’s pipe.
And of course he was correct. It was a painting of a pipe, not a pipe at all. The painting, made in 1928, is called The Treachery of Images.
I was reminded of this landmark work when visiting an exhibition by the sculptor Gakunju Kaigwa and the painter Justus Kyalo.
Called Blurred Lines, it is said to explore the divisions between objects created to make art and those that are purely functional.
It is a curious matter to consider, given that most art sprang from functional need… among the Ancients to glorify gods and rulers and later to realise and thus contain the mysteries of the spirit world, both in Europe and Africa.
In Europe, paintings and sculpture described the Resurrection and visions of hell; in Africa, carvings of figures and masks explained the power of ancestors and placated many deities.
The argument that there is a difference between fine and applied arts was lost almost 600 years ago when Lorenzo Ghiberti was commissioned to make the 17ft high gilt bronze doors for the Baptistery in Florence.
They were admired by Michelangelo and have since stood as one of the glories of the Italian Renaissance.
Surely the criterion is not the media the artist chooses but whether the result is good or bad.
I think both sculptor and painter in Blurred Lines (at the Art Space, off Riverside, Nairobi until May 7) are concerned not so much by artificial distinctions but by a subject that has engrossed artists through the ages — landscape.
Of the 12 sculptures by Kaigwa dotted around the rooms, six are of stools or chairs and five are of tables. The other might well be a frame for a giant mirror.
I had a sneaky sit down while at the exhibition (I have since been told that sitting is welcomed) and can tell you that Kaigwa’s stools fail in their function. Surprising and lovely to look at they are; comfortable they are not.
To demonstrate that the tables are functional, exhibition organiser Wambui Kamiru has put a vase of flowers neatly in the centre of one — “C’est une table!” after all.
Objects as well as images seem to get more treacherous by the day.
Another of the tables is called Loiyangalani, made in two parts linked by stainless steel rods, above which snakes a ribbon of glass. Leading to the glass, rivulets of paint mimic a river’s many tributaries. Table as map.
Another table is the end of a thick log of grevillea chewed by termites into a series of spikes and called Kirinyaga. A glass top makes it useable. Like Meret Oppenheim’s unusable Surrealist cup with its fur lining, it sets up tensions and is at once mysterious and revealed.
The 11 works on the walls by Kyalo are all of thin sheets of mabati — a material as functional as you can get — titled Untitled and numbered… titles in denial, another Blurred Line for you. They bear areas of paint or are marked by acid dribbled across the surface.
Some are imbued with a silvery elegance while others are stained with dark red patches as though the ground itself were bleeding. They spoke to me of lost landscapes, of dereliction and decay.
Eerie and compelling, they make a strong statement about the damage we are causing yet celebrate what Yeats called “the terrible beauty” that remains.
Surely the stated aim of this exhibition — an investigation of distinctions between the aesthetic and the functional — was not the primary object of the two artists.
Nonetheless, with its questioning of the nature of art layered over its concern for the East African landscape, this is an exhibition that is intelligent, provocative, and one that offers riches on many levels.
C’est un succes!