Florence Wangui has finally got around to doing what the many admirers of her work have long wanted—taken her art out of the henhouse and put it at the centre of our lives. And, thank God, it is as unnerving as ever.
Where fierce chickens fluffed their feathers or flew, and gazed quizzically at us ready to peck, now we have a woman captured in unexpected poses, with a cascade of haloes, or an egg inexplicably balanced on one shoulder...
As Wangui draws, her model sleeps; sits hunched on unyielding wooden chairs; throws back her head or stares at us while upside down; fidgets and teases her fingernails; peers anxiously over the top of a book; stares at something away in the distance...
It is all quite bizarre yet utterly compelling.
Wangui appears effortlessly to fulfil the stipulation of one of my favourite artists (and her's), Lucien Freud, who said that a painting should, “Astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.”
Wangui’s charcoal drawing of a young woman, head tilted and with an egg balanced on her left shoulder, confidently fulfils all four of those conditions—as does the rest of her current exhibition Remnants of an Experience, at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi, until March 24.
It is of 13 paintings, oils on board or canvas, and 10 drawings, charcoal on paper, and not a dud among them.
In this corpus of excellence, the artist examines her recollections of people and events and the impact they have had on her.
And it is with this exhibition that Wangui places herself among the premier group of East African artists; a place where most other artists, collectors and gallery-goers suspect she has belonged for some time.
She has done so by honing her basic formal skills of drawing and painting and then adding edge by reaching deep and releasing images from her rattlebag of memories.
Wangui places her model in the unpredictable and often multiple poses that express some resolution of her inner struggle, and enhances them with additions such as an egg, a wandering chicken, a red book, golden haloes, silent watchers and spectral figures that while initially might strike you as odd, settle to become entirely believable.
Her drawing Egg Rest on Shoulder is a case in point.
What is that egg doing there? How can it possibly hold its balance? What happens if the model (Wangui’s sister Dorothy) tries to move? Will the egg, the artist’s symbol for opportunity, have a big fall like Humpty Dumpty? And will all the king’s horses and all the king’s men ever put it back together again?
Yet there it is, seemingly secure. In fact it was included at the sketchbook stage and now it is impossible to imagine the drawing without it. (Block your sight of it with a thumb and you will see how its absence throws the drawing out of kilter).
In Dream Periphery, a 57cm by 64cm charcoal drawing, the weight of the head is beautifully described below a sensuous web of velvety lines, while Insightopia III shows Dorothy’s head twice, with a third appearance of her grimacing mouth adding a hint of menace.
In the nightmarish Insightopia I the same head appears seven times—all upside down and with varying expressions—while in Sturdy Feet, Dorothy is put on the spot, literally standing on a large X.
Kafka-like, she is placed before a semicircle of seated figures. Why? Is she facing judgment? Is she an actress on life’s stage? Is she us?
It helps to know that Wangui and Dorothy look alike. The artist might as well be drawing herself physically, and certainly is drawing herself metaphorically.
Of course we know Wangui can draw. She became famous for that through her charcoal chickens.
Her paintings were less well known… small studies of her feathered friends and the occasional venture into Surrealism with a man’s body given a chicken’s neck and head.
This exhibition proves not only that she really can paint but that she is able to sustain her technique over a large scale.
Providential Reception, at 104cm by 151cm, as well as containing one of the most curious images in the show—of Dorothy with her head thrown back towards a series of golden haloes that signify grace — is notable too for her beautifully described hands.
In the tender Head Rest, at 70cm by 76cm showing Dorothy twice, the painterly verve (particularly in the transition from jawline to neck) and overall quality of the work is superb.
With their astonishing formal excellence and disturbing iconography, these paintings and drawings establish Florence Wangui as a seductive talent.
And better still, one that is wholly convincing.