United we stand, divided we fall...

Monday April 24 2017

Under Construction by Onyis Martin. PHOTO|

Under Construction by Onyis Martin. PHOTO| FRANK WHALLEY 


The turning points of our lives and how to confront them while retaining our individuality in spite of social expectations has long concerned Kenyan artist Onyis Martin.

The changes we face moving from, say, childhood to becoming adult, to becoming employed, becoming married, becoming a parent, facing death… those momentous events and how we are moulded by social mores as we slide from space to space are the subject of his latest exhibition.

This process, which he calls Becoming — or rather be-com-ing — , has been so institutionalised, often through ceremonies and ritual, that when it breaks down, he argues, people are at a loss what to do.

So, Martin asks, how can we be different? How can we be ourselves? How can we respect individuality within our community? 

His suggestion appears to boil down to recognising our differences, accepting them and celebrating them openly, in spite of any restrictions placed upon us.

The exhibition has as its dramatic centrepiece a sculpture designed to look like a building site; an incomplete figure covered in key words and figures surrounded by scaffolding and set within the yellow taped borders that mark off no-go areas in many a workplace.

This is the process of our construction; of our birth, of creation. The lettering already on our bodies shows we emerge with our opinions and responses already at least half-formed.

Then there are five large paintings, mixed media on canvas that each deal with chapters of change in our lives indicated by words stencilled onto the canvas.

Their curious titles — 0+401, 0+303 and 0+309, for example — reference the writing by council engineers indicating the number of metres measured on road reserves throughout the city. Another change, another chapter in our lives is coming.

Then there are a group of six figure drawings, the outlines similar but the interiors differentiated with washes of ink. On the outside we may appear to be the same but internally we are all different, they say.

These elegant and beautifully finished Variations of Repetition 1-6 are supported by a slogan, the importance of which is underlined by the fact that it is printed both on the wall beneath the drawings, and the on the floor: “Son don’t rush to be a man. All men are the same” — an opinion, incidentally, that struck me as demonstrably untrue in far more ways than it could be accurate.

Variations of Repetition 003, by Onyis Martin.

Variations of Repetition 003, by Onyis Martin. PHOTO| FRANK WHALLEY

However, this is a thoughtful show by an artist growing in stature almost week by week. Like much conceptual art so tightly curated, it achieves holistic status.

On at the Red Hill Art Gallery off the road from Nairobi to Limuru until May 21, it is this very completeness that poses a problem, which is in itself a turning point...

If the artist offers this to us as a coherent statement, we are entitled to assume its viability will be reduced by the absence of any of its parts. So what becomes of it once the exhibition is over? What happens to it outside the gallery?

If it is a touring show then it is simply repeated to a greater or lesser effect depending on the space and the curator. But this is a selling show and its parts are for sale.

It would be a rare collector who buys the entire show and remounts it at home.

So what happens to it after May 21?

In the case of Rehema Chachage’s recent conceptual installation at the Circle Art Gallery, Mlango wa Navushiku (Navushiku’s Lineage) — reviewed here last week — the problem was neatly solved… none of it was for sale so it can all be mounted again in future.

What usually happens, as is the case here with Martin, is that individual pieces are bought by different people who proudly take them away and display them in their home.

And that is the point that puzzles me. It means the homogeneity is lost.

The Variations in particular, with their external similarities coupled with the internal changes cannot stand alone. Together they are a powerful statement: Singly they lose the point.

This is surely one of the difficulties for a collector of work that relies as heavily on the concept as the excellence of its execution. What an owner is left with is enjoying the work, divorced from its content and meaning, for its intrinsic, formal qualities alone — its composition, colour, tones, the felicity of paint and so on.
With a solitary piece the collector would have at best a memory of the whole — like a mask without its costume; admirable by itself but nevertheless a quotation, rather as though it were an excerpt from a favourite novel or poem.

The force of the original, conceived, executed and exhibited as an entity has gone. The coherence of the argument is missing.

Unlike a show in which the works simply follow a theme, in be-com-ing, the riff of the construction site, the lettered sculpture and paintings, slogans printed on wall and floor, the unorthodox naming of the works, the rhythm of contrasts within the ink wash figures, all mean the exhibition so succeeds in its consistent interrogation of our rites of passage that the separation of its parts would cause the artist’s polemic to implode.

United it stands; divided it falls.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts consultancy based in Nairobi