Nadia Kisseleva is reviving the “tronie” genre of portrait painting that originated in the Netherlands, using the African woman.
Tronie painting aims to portray expression or character instead of a real likeness. The most famous tronie is Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.
Kisseleva’s tronies form the exhibition The Other Kind of Beauty, showing at the Nairobi National Museums.
Painted in broad brushstrokes, many paintings are of two women who look alike, side by side in similar attire and wearing hooped earrings. On closer inspection you notice subtle differences in their expressions, like the two women wearing strapless dresses in Smile. One is smiling, the other remains tight lipped.
The two Samburu girls in scarlet clothes and beaded jewellery sit side by side in the Girl Adorned. They look like sisters with different expressions — a look of uncertainty next to a timid smile. You feel like Kisseleva’s women are staring at you.
Girl from Manyatta is a painting of a woman in traditional red clothing, wearing a bronze earring and upper ear piercing, and standing against a pale landscape. Her expression seems fierce, or maybe she is squinting in the sun’s glare. Either way, you are drawn into her mood, curious to know what occupies her mind.
Kisseleva says she finds freedom in the anonymity of tronie work compared with traditional portraiture.
“All of them are people of the street, which allows me to do whatever I feel like. In portraiture you are really tied up to likeness, you are worried if the person will like the painting,” she says.
In other paintings, the colours speak to the type of person rather than their emotions. Deep yellows, dark reds, or the ruddy complexion of the woman with a gold hoop earring in Dream. Directing a sideways glance at the viewer, her suspicious eyes and sneering mouth speak of a hardened person.
Russian-born Kisseleva began painting earnestly when she lived in Kenya for 16 years before going to study fine art in the UK in 1996.
Now resident in Russia and Austria, she regularly visits Kenya, a place she regards as her spiritual home. The exhibition ends on October 30.