Tribal art fascinates Kiptoo Tarus, paints with energy

Thursday March 05 2015

Hands in the making... a corner of Kiptoo Tarus’s studio in Kentucky. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

A large and rambling house near Munich houses one of the world’s finest collections of African tribal art still in private hands.

It includes a definitive group of vigango, ancestor posts carved by the Mijikenda of Kenya, plus frequently cited figures by the Sukuma and the Nyamwezi — the wonderfully named People of the Moon — from Tanzania that are notable for their rude vigour.

The collection was built up by the artist Georg Baselitz, a controversial figure who once caused distress within the genteel world of the visual arts by declaring “Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact.”


Baselitz himself — painter, printmaker and sculptor — is best known for his neo-expressionist heads, painted upside down, (the heads are upside down; it’s not that he was upside down when he painted them, you understand) wild use of colour, raw sexual content that has seen his work banned from public view, and sculptures cut roughly from logs with a chain saw.

Admirers refer to his energy and provocative vision. Detractors (who may well include some women artists) mutter about emperors and new clothes.


Be that as it may, Baselitz has a soulmate in the person of Kiptoo Tarus from Nairobi. Tarus is also fascinated by tribal art, uses a chain saw to cut sculptures from logs, and also paints with determination and energy.

He is an imaginative artist and a breath of fresh air, even in our region’s outward looking and receptive art scene.

Currently in Kentucky studying for his masters in fine arts, Tarus has already distinguished himself with a series of sculptures based on headrests, those indispensible aids to a good night’s sleep for pastoralists everywhere.

(Incidentally, I was delighted to find in the Cairo museum an ivory headrest similar in shape to those from the Kenya-Ethiopian border, but in use some 3,300 years ago. It was from the tomb of Tutankhamun.)

Tarus’s headrests, together exhibited as Sleeping Beauties, are of pottery with a thick milky glaze and copy the forms found in many of the communities in this region’s northern belt that takes in Karamoja, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia… the lands of traditional pastoralism, in fact.

In spite of their rather loose forms (the originals have a spinal strength and crispness lacking in the derivatives), they tell of Tarus’s interest in the lifestyles of his pastoralist ancestors in the Rift Valley, and his continuing investigation of the structures and models by which nomadic societies build and sustain their livelihoods throughout their migrations.

Parallel to his Sleeping Beauties, Tarus has made a giant headrest called Nomad’s Palace based on the classic Turkana type — a central plank shaft on round base with a curving neckpiece — that stands some two metres tall and is made from leather, wood and steel. The sides have been painted to mimic the poker work designs burnt into many of the original pieces.

It is a common trick to shock the senses and offer new insights with a dramatic change of scale; common and effective, it always seems to work.

Think for instance of the grandeur of Michelangelo’s David (some four metres tall plus the pedestal) or The Great Wave by Hokusai, more a tsunami with its gigantic crest dwarfing the boats caught within its curling mass. Then there are the visual jokes like the pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s soft beef burger, given a new independence by its sheer size; two metres across and around one metre high.

More commonly, and at the other end of the scale, think too of the fascination we have with architects’ models or those little villages made as tourist attractions, where visitors tower over the houses.

Tarus is that welcome beast, a sculptor with something to say.

His wooden bas relief panels The Lancaster Accord, about the agreement that paved the way to Kenyan Independence, won him the Brown-Forman Corporation award in an exhibition celebrating African American history, culture and art.

His most recent work is a series of giant hands — that interest in scale, again — that reference the refugees forced to flee by the Kenyan post-election violence of 2007-08. Cut out with a chain saw, they are strong, visionary pieces packed with vitality. The hands reach out to us, clawing the air, beseeching help and above all, peace.

Tarus intends to develop the metaphor by using the 32 hands as chess pieces; 16 painted white, 16 black, as an allusion perhaps to political games played out with real lives.

I look forward to Kiptoo’s return to Kenya and to see what work he may yet produce; as long as he, like Baselitz, continues to fulfil one of the key functions of artists — that is, to shock and provoke us all.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.