Welcoming a risen soul at another resurrection

Thursday June 06 2013

Orders From Above by Anthony Okello. Photo/Frank Whalley

If you wanted to send someone a message would you do so by tortoise? No, me neither. Yet that was precisely the vehicle chosen for one of the most important messages ever sent anywhere, according to Taita mythology.

The tortoise carried the message that if man died he would be resurrected. But if the moon died, it would be gone forever.

Who the message was from, and to whom it was sent, remain locked in the secret lore known only to the elders, the guardians of cultural legends… but the story of the travelling tortoise inspired Anthony Okello to include it as the basis of one of his series of paintings based on the tribal lore of Kenya.

The picture is one of three so far — the others pay tribute to the legends of the Luo and the Kikuyu — and is the talking point of his current exhibition at the One-Off gallery at Rosslyn, a few kilometres to the west of Nairobi.

And most of the talk about this gigantic piece — two metres by three metres no less — is centred on the fact that look as hard as you might, there is not a single tortoise to be seen. If the message it bears is plain, neither Okello nor the characters in his painting are telling us what it is. We are left to deconstruct it from the evidence on canvas.

What we have is a painting too big to be hung inside the gallery, and therefore displayed on a stable wall outside, with content that at first sight mystifies. What is clear is that it is a picture of a resurrection, and, in that sense, it is one of the classic subjects of art; one that crosses cultural boundaries and addresses the eternal fear — what happens to us when we die?


It is also therefore a picture of hope and, whether to animist or Christian, offers a promise of the afterlife.

At the bottom of this vast canvas, anchoring the composition, lays the red figure of a woman, from which rises its spirit, in green. Awaiting this revived soul, in the middle ground, is what appears to be a chorus of cheerleaders, their heads like flowers on stalks, and beyond them lies the promise of heavenly bliss…. in this case groups of large and wobbly women into whose voluptuous care the soul is to be received.

Two of them, the largest of all, flank the risen soul on the right, their heads within a golden nimbus, creating an arc that takes the eye upwards towards the frolicking spirits at the top of the picture, radiant with light.

I suspect that, as with most art, any universal truth this painting offers is filtered through the desires and hopes of the artist (who happens to be as thin as a whip.) Never mind that the dead soul in this painting is that of a woman, thereby neutralising any overt sexual content — if this is Paradise, I’m a convert too.

The other two pictures in the series — those of the Luo and Kikuyu myths — found eager buyers in Robert Devereaux and Robert Loder, known for both their business acumen and for devoting goodly parts of their fortunes to setting up arts trusts.

This painting, called Orders from Above, has yet to find a buyer and at Ksh1.2 million ($14,200) my guess is that it will need an exceptionally wealthy collector as well as an unusually astute one to take the plunge.

The tortoise does trundle into view elsewhere in the exhibition. In a painting called Class of 2012, it appears on its little stumpy legs with a variety of other animals, all looking fiercely greedy. It is about Kenya’s latest crop of politicians.

The exhibition, which is on until June 26, is entitled Masquerade and the signature paintings in this, only Okello’s second solo show, are of masked faces, offering his insight into sliding realities, identity, and how people disguise their true intentions.

A diptych of his masked figures sold for $7,650 at last month’s charity auction at Bonham’s in London, which featured eight Kenyan artists.

That success got Okello a seat on the committee that will decide how to disburse the auction proceeds, some $30,500, to Kenyan art projects, and it makes these pictures, notionally at least, worth far more than their asking prices of from Ksh19,000 ($225) to Ksh60,000 ($712).

Of greater interest, to me at least, were his pictures of dancers, based unashamedly on the two seminal paintings of a circle of leaping figures by Henri Matisse, completed in 1910. Okello is a huge fan of Matisse and claims to have seen every painting, in reproduction, that he ever made.

There was also a curious cupid painting called An Arrow and a Flower. What is curious is that unlike in the Roman myth this cupid is a woman (a small, fat, wobbly one this time) whose arrow is piercing the heart of a masked nun.

The Resurrection, Cupid… the man is a mainstream classicist. Or maybe not. His take on the classics is certainly provocative — and his exhibition is well worth seeing. Particularly if fat, wobbly women are your thing.

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