Two painters divided by their similarities

Thursday September 4 2014

Behold, by Peter Elungat. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Behold, by Peter Elungat. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY  

By FRANK WHALLEY

Sir Winston Churchill said that Britain and America were two great nations divided by a common language. And in that vein one current exhibition reveals two artists separated by their similarities. One is Kenyan, the other American.

It is a show that superficially at least proves the truth of the sayings that birds of a feather flock together, that great minds think alike, or, if you prefer, that fools seldom differ.
Yet below the surface lurks a contradiction to consider.

For Peter Elungat and Olivia Pendergast have never met, yet have produced work that seems to bind them together as fellow souls in so many ways.

Both paint in oils; both feature single figures isolated against relatively plain backgrounds; both apply their paint in gentle, rather beautiful strokes; both place their models in a fairly restricted range of poses; and perhaps most importantly — and noticeably —both manipulate the proportions of their figures to create ideals, rather than real people with sweat on their brows.

In each case the figures have small heads and large bodies that sprawl across the picture surface, using space to accentuate the artists’ shared sharp sense of design.

Of course changing the proportions of the human figure is nothing new in art, even in comparatively realistic work. Michelangelo and Modigliani are two painters who excelled at this; Giacometti and Moore the obvious examples from sculpture.

Around 20 paintings by Elungat and Pendergast are on show at the One-Off in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi, until the middle of this month. And on walking into the gallery you may be tempted to do a double take.

The paintings have been intermingled rather than grouped by painters; poses seem to echo each other and as your eyes are bounced around the walls from figure to figure, the subjects sit or stand, hands mostly clasped, rarely looking back at you but gazing away into some private world of their own.

On the same wall in fact are two poses so similar in concept if not execution that I have illustrated them here… both women, arms folded, each set slightly to the right of the canvas, both bodies turning to the viewers’ left. Yet the restricted repertoire serves to highlight my suggestion that these two similar painters are really very different.

For the woman in Elungat’s Behold is richly clothed in gorgeous swathes of yellow robe over a white chemise, while the Pendergast Kawangware, Cold Day is spare, restrained to the point of being self-effacing. And so the differences continue.

Pendergast leaves the bones of her subjects showing — the underdrawing, usually in pencil, that adds depth and integrity to her figures: Elungat’s figures appear effortless, visions from some faux-Medieval dream world, the oil paint adding a rich luminosity to the surface.

Elungat, a man, paints almost exclusively women; Pendergast, a woman, paints both men and women with equal care.

And then there is that other odd thing: All the subjects of Pendergast, a white woman from Utah, are black — this group was painted from life in Kawangware — while all those of Elungat, a black man from Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border, are white and painted in his studio entirely from his imagination.

Of the two, I think Elungat is the more interesting dreamer, but Pendergast the better painter. Formally trained to a very high level as an illustrator before taking fine arts, her figures are more solid, the paint more precise, the palette less gratuitously lush and the subjects a little more rooted to their backgrounds.

Elungat has held many popular exhibitions around East Africa and is represented in foreign collections too, but even he will have to go some way to cap Pendergast’s 41 previous shows, which garnered seven prestigious awards.

As it happens I don’t care much for her over-designed compositions, nor for the fey, wafting, almost desperately romantic imagery of Elungat — nor for the deliberate distortions of both.

I would soon tire of them on my wall, although I certainly recognise that each has skills aplenty and realises their distinct visions with acuity and style.

But if my Fairy Godmother arrived, probably on a broomstick, and insisted I had to buy any of these paintings it would be the little red Pendergast on a miniature easel by the door, because although it is only A4, it has all the admirable qualities of her larger paintings and is a testimonial to a considerable technical accomplishment. Also red leaps to the eye and would command attention against the competition.

So, two painters divided by their similarities that have in fact created an attraction of opposites. For curator Carol Lees and the many fans of both these artists, this show is a marriage made in heaven.

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