GALLERIES: When drawing is just the beginning

Saturday November 23 2019

'Untitled ll, 2019' by Beatrice Wanjiku. PHOTO

'Untitled ll, 2019' by Beatrice Wanjiku. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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A hard won proficiency in drawing can enable artists to find fresh insights.

There is something about the discipline that helps to extend them from a superficial depiction of form and lets them drill down to their subject’s core.

Excellent examples abound in a current exhibition by 15 artists who take the essential skill of drawing only as their starting point.

For them drawing is not the end but the beginning.

Two of these examples come from opposite ends of the spectrum—one from a relative newcomer and the other from an established talent with an international reputation. They are Sudanese painter Miska Mohmmed and award winning Kenyan Beatrice Wanjiku.

Both are included in an exhibition of some 60 works at the Circle art gallery in Lavington, Nairobi, until December 7.


Mohmmed (she spells it like that; no middle vowel) offers four small watercolour drawings of the Nile.

In one, she draws boats jostling on the river; a well controlled illustration, literal and accurate as far as it goes. But in the others she explores the river landscape—the banks, the hills beyond and the lowering sky—with vivid slashes of colour that free parts of the scene from their topographical certainties, and bring a sense not only of the sight of the place but also its vibrating heat, its sounds and its smells.

Wanjiku, as well as offering some of her more typical paintings, shows two dynamic abstract drawings in ink. They represent a spontaneous attempt by her to think in line not form, and each shows the power that line can project and its ability to confront and enthuse the viewer.

Many artists demonstrate the art of illustration: Mohmmed and Wanjiku illustrate art.

Wanjiku and another Kenyan heavy hitter, Peterson Kamwathi, anchor a show that its curator Jonathan Fraser determined should mix established artists with new talent to explore how they think about drawing and use it to navigate their world and communicate with others.

Kamwathi is offering a study for an animation. His pastel and spray paint collage Untitled—Contortion, Noble Savage Series, shows the same figure in 16 poses, lifting a heavy water container.

Like the photographs of the Victorian Eadweard Muybridge, it presents a vigorous stop-motion examination of the figure.

Meanwhile Wanjiku’s more familiar acrylics on paper, Study IV, V and VI, show her getting up close and dirty in her continuing investigation of the human body.

Here she is practically up to her elbows in gore (prussian blue and alizarin crimson predominate) as she conducts post mortems with her brush to continue her obsession with the outward—and inner—proofs of our humanity. All that is missing, so far, is the gleam of bone.

It makes for compelling if uncomfortable viewing.

As well as Miska Mohmmed five other relative newcomers are Yaye Kassamali, Florin Iki Mmaka, Anthony Muisyo, Precious Narotso and Sujay Shah.

Kassamali, now teaching in Shanghai, makes collages of open hands in vibrant colours, symbolic of her reaching out to new people and places.

In Mmaka’s mixed media collages, women in diaphanous gowns loll around in wooded glades, while Muisyo’s inkjet prints offer a flashback to the Sixties and Richard Hamilton with their witty use of typography and everyday icons; a radio, a bus, an elephant. (An elephant? Well, this is Africa.)

Narotso also makes inkjet prints; in her case of three-quarter length figures that echo Kassamali’s enthusiasm for colours bright as neon.

One of the stars of the show is Shah, fresh from New York where he worked after taking a degree in painting from Savannah, Georgia.

Ten sketchbook pages offer a pithy if surreal commentary on life...a chess player holds a dagger behind his back, an antiques dealer offers the ordinary with extraordinary confidence.

Exhibited artists already building reputations are Jessica Atieno—showing variations on her theme of floating body cells—and Agnes Waruguru Njoroge, another Savannah graduate, who focuses on an exploration of her own identity through a variety of media, including needlework, paint and the physicality of paper.

More established artists include the curator himself—Jonathan Gathaara Solanke Fraser to give him his full name—Onyis Martin, Elias Mung’ora, Longinis Nagila, Gor Soudan and Lemek Tompoika.

Fraser’s multidisciplinary approach includes large drawings in pastel and charcoal, a fast-forwarded collision of images from his dreams, while Nagila’s pierced paper figures again reveal him to be among the most interesting artists in the region.

There remains one mystery.

Why are the two superb abstract drawings by Wanjiku and the finest of Mohmmed’s landscapes almost thrown away by the hang?

One Wanjiku is jammed into a corner at the far end of the gallery while the other, bursting with broad brush energy and demanding space to be seen, is crammed into a corridor.

Mohmmed’s brilliant little watercolour Untitled I is further along the same corridor and can only be found by a really determined visitor.

'Untitled I' by Miska Mohmmed. PHOTO | FRANK
'Untitled I' by Miska Mohmmed. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

But seek and ye shall find—and it is worth the effort. On a scale of one to 10, these two rate around 50.