Good artists paint what they know and Cartoon Joseph knows as much as most people about families.
The ninth of 12 children, he lives in Banana Hill, one of the artists’ villages to the west of Nairobi, with his wife and two children and he views with nostalgia how when he was young every child wanted to be first to get a hand in the pot containing the family’s meal of maize and beans.
He commemorates this sibling rivalry as a recurrent image in many of the paintings in his current exhibition, on for a couple more days in the gallery carved out of the first floor car park at the Village Market, in the Kenyan capital.
Showing with him is the Tanzanian Patrick Imanjama holding his first show in Kenya. It is of etchings and watercolours—and what an interesting debut it is.
But first Cartoon—and life in the villages that surround the Kenyan capital.
Of his 21 brightly coloured oils on canvas, the majority portray everyday village life with the family at its heart.
And at the heart of the family is the mother.
Cartoon’s paintings focus on the large families in small villages, thriving essentially through the mothers’ overarching care and a selfless sharing of resources.
This glowing view of family life is promoted in painting after painting in canvases so richly coloured and intricately designed they could almost be mistaken for tapestries.
Patterns on steroids for sure.
Typical is The Nature of People in Our Village, a giant at 180 x 163cm, (pictured above), in which his motif of a hand thrust into the neck of an earthenware pot can be seen in the centre.
Also typical of his output is the way Cartoon continues to segment the faces into different colours—a trait copied by several regional painters including, notably, James Mbuthia—in an attempt to show that Kenyans are of many tribes yet can all live together in harmony.
After the rowdy, complex canvases of Cartoon Joseph, the cool simplicity of Patrick Imanjama’s work comes as a welcome foil.
Almost inevitably, with his connection to Dar, Imanjama’s 17 etchings and 12 watercolours bear echoes of Tingatinga mannerisms, with their flattened perspectives, clear colours, stylised animals and emphasis on design.
This artist has sufficient skill to bend the style to suit, producing subtle works yet with a comforting resonance and for those who want it, a highly developed accomplishment in etching itself, with its fellow traveller of deep bite marks in thick, luscious paper.
If you like that sort of thing (and I certainly do) then Imanjama’s etchings are to die for; a celebration both of the wildlife that forms the majority of his subject matter and of the etching process.
The artist developed his etching technique in a series of workshops in Austria and Germany and the lessons were well taken.
The closest I can get to a comparison with other regional painters, apart from the Tingatinga school of Oyster Bay (should it help us all to get our bearings) is with Kivuthi Mbuno, whose hunters and animals are locked in perpetual struggle against gaudy backgrounds of make believe mountains.
Interestingly, both Mbuno and Imanjama have artist sons—Titus in Mbuno’s case and Raymond in Imanjama’s—who produce work almost indistinguishable from their fathers’. (One or two of Raymond’s works can be seen in a folder included in this show.)
However, if Imanjama has created his own world, it is not of fantasy (unless you are an authoritarian zoologist) but of a more factual landscape populated with creatures we immediately recognise.
True the zebras feature a sort of snub-nosed sneer—but in life they do, don’t they?—and the elephants have faintly human expressions and, yes, the big cats verge toward the cartoonish, but on the whole there is a sense that the scenes have been taken down verbatim.
This artist controls his colours well. The aquatint process tends to favour a light and subtle range of hues, although in Family of Birds they intensify to include vivid greens and assertive pinks.
They are so strong and in such contrast to most of the etchings that it might well be that the print was hand coloured after being pulled. Either way it is a stunning piece of work.
Elsewhere, pale blue skies provide a perfect backdrop for washes of lemony grass and occasional accents of green for the small spiky plants Imanjama favours.
It is in the watercolours that his palette strengthens and, like Family of Birds, offers vibrant insights into a children’s picture book environment he has created.
The eye-level hang was by Morris Amboso, former manager of the now defunct Watatu Gallery, and is uncluttered, with names, sizes, media and prices all clearly marked.
He has presented two artists with wildly different techniques bound by a common desire—to share their immersion in worlds they have loved and reinvented.