What’s next in line from the queue artist?

Monday August 23 2010


Some artists remain content to work in a narrow field, producing paintings or sculptures that are immediately recognisable as by themselves; each new piece as good as every other one that went before.

Their palette, subject matter and even their viewpoint often remain the same, their pictures examples of honest workmanship and a clear, if limited, vision.

There are few surprises, which for them is a good thing. These people know what they have to say and, more particularly, what their customers want and expect.

Such work can be found in most galleries and on many walls — including my own — and there is an appeal and integrity about much of the stuff they produce.

But occasionally, along comes an artist who surprises, shocks and delights with originality and constant changes in direction which are, nonetheless, anchored if not to a single vision then at least to a considered range of interests.

Such an artist in Kenya is Peterson Kamwathi.

He has painted in oils and acrylics, makes prints using techniques including etching, aquatint, and woodcut, draws with pencil, chalks, pastels and charcoal, makes sculptures from stone, glass, wood and clay, as created stop-motion animations and enjoys astonishing his admirers, clients and, I suspect, often himself, with such quirky things as light boxes and other installations.

His work is joyous, fun, entertaining, provocative, polemical, and I believe, necessary. At all times it is executed with exuberance, confidence and great skill.

And the man has only just turned 30.

Kamwathi is probably best known for his use of animals to make a point — the Kenya bull, anti-war sheep, peace doves and long suffering donkeys representing wananchi with both their strength and their servitude.

Perhaps most of all he is known for the show called Sitting Allowance, held last year at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi.

It was a series of eight life-size charcoal and chalk panels of events surrounding the 2007 general election and its desperate aftermath: The polling officials, the riot police, the candidates, and, among others, the international observers. It was billed then as “an enigmatic, challenging and dark artistic comment on Kenya’s political and social constitution.”

Widely praised, it was probably the most important — and iconic — art work to come out of the whole election crisis.

From Sitting Allowance Kamwathi developed a series of drawings of people forming queues. That’s all. Just rows of people standing in line.

Drawn variously in ink and charcoal and ranging from sketches half the size of this page to highly finished life-size charcoal and chalk drawings, they helped to earn Kamwathi a four-month residency at the prestigious Rijksakademie in Amsterdam.

Now he is back. And it seems his obsession with queues continues.

He has returned with a portfolio of studies completed in Amsterdam in what, for him, is the newfound printing technique of sugar-lift aquatints.

Picasso was a fan of this method of intaglio printing, as were many other famous artists.

Its defining feature is that it produces an overall richly textured tone, and shows the artist’s brushwork, not the thin lines associated with engraving or etching.

Currently, some 14 of Kamwathi’s aquatint studies can be seen at Carol Lees’s One-Off Gallery in Roslyn, Nairobi.

Most are of groups of figures in a queue; sometimes three, sometimes four.

They are seen in outline wash, and then as tonal studies as the plates are proofed in their various states.

One set is of single figures cut out and glued down onto a silkscreen background. There is something spare and noble about them.

Perhaps inevitably, given that the pictures were made in Amsterdam, Kamwathi’s drawing of the figures reminded me of Van Gogh’s postman, and of his artisans with their baggy, billowing clothing.

Kamwathi’s use of the queue, in which the individual figures are subsumed by the overall composition, also brought to mind the scenes of the British master L.S. Lowry whose paintings are filled with crowds — outside factories, on the beach, in the street, at football matches and marching in procession.

Kamwathi’s continuing interest in queues and crowds raises the question: What next?

The answer is that even he doesn’t know the answer to that one.

But be assured that whatever does come next will be interesting, superbly executed and important, too.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]