Why Onyis Martin is a shoe-in at Zeitz...

Saturday June 8 2019

'Papers of Freedom lll', by Onyis Martin.

'Papers of Freedom lll', by Onyis Martin. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

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Onyis Martin, a young Kenyan making his name on the international arts scene, has been chosen to take part in an exhibition exploring progress and utopia as they relate to Africa.

Best known for figurative wash paintings that examine identity and migration, he was a shoo-in for this show.

It is being held at the pioneering Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, named after the former Puma sports shoe and clothing chief Jochen Zeitz who was its driving force and a major benefactor.

With a focus on politics, history, and global issues, the exhibition is called Still here tomorrow to high five you yesterday...


Themes such as migration, identity, social justice, and the history of myth-making encourage provocative statements by the 19 artists taking part, using a mix of media and practices including photography and installations that highlight the different ways in which we reflect and reinvent ourselves.


Aged 32, Martin is based at the Kobo Trust at Dagoretti, Nairobi, and also works from a studio at his home off the capital’s Ngong Road near the Jamhuri showground. It was there that he created the 10 works selected for this exhibition from his total submission of 25.

All deal with migration and identity and show figures in black wash, embedded in the picture plane with photo images of IDs, passports and other travel documents.

They were made in 2016 and similar works by the artist have been exhibited previously in and around Nairobi at the Circle and Red Hill galleries.

Martin commented: “Showing at the Zeitz is such a great honour.”

Artist Onyis Martin. PHOTO | COURTESY
Artist Onyis Martin. PHOTO | COURTESY

Other artists chosen from across the continent to take part in Still Here include Sue Williamson whose installation A Few South Africans forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. Williamson, who was born in England but emigrated to South Africa as a child, studied in New York and Cape Town — now her home city — and trained as a printmaker, but has since worked in many media including photography, video, and installation.

Particularly interested in South African history and the country’s liberation narrative, she has continued to focus on such issues as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, slavery, and immigration.

Widely recognised as an artist of international importance using the South African experience as a lens through which to view global issues, her work is in the collections of the Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Said Martin: “I admire her work and to show alongside her is a blessing and an inspiration to keep dreaming.”


Curator Azu Nwagbogu, founder and director of the African Artists' Foundation, a charity based in Lagos, Nigeria, commented: “Some of the artists envisage and stage Marxist, pan-African utopias, truncated by American CIA intervention. Such narratives touch on the legacies of African revolutionary leaders like Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah, and Patrice Lumumba.”

And he went on: “If we are to understand China’s influence in Africa, we must reflect on yesteryear’s communist ideologies.”

The artists in Still Here offer a distinct concept in which time is not linear, but where past, present, and future merge. The galleries, with darkened walls, become gateways through which visitors can consider the artists’ thoughts about performance, politics, and representation.

Onyis Martin is not the first Kenyan to be honoured with an exhibition at the Zeitz.

Cyrus Kabiru is in the museum’s permanent collection with a group of blow-up photographs of models wearing his renowned C-Stunners spectacles made from recycled pieces of scrap metal.

In addition, the great and the good from Kenya who have made it to the Zeitz include Wanuri Kahiu, Osborne Macharia, Wangechi Mutu and Muchiri Njenga. Tanzanians shown there so far include Valerie Amani, Rehema Chacage and Sabrina Yegela.

The Zeitz museum specialises in contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora, preserves artworks, hosts international exhibitions, develops educational programmes, encourages cultural understanding and guarantees access to art for all.

Zeitz himself is a noted fan of contemporary African art, whose personal collection includes works by Kenyans Peterson Kamwathi and Mutu.

A business wizard with diverse interests, Zeitz revitalised Puma as its chairman and CEO (share price rocketing from 8.6 euros to 350 euros in 13 years) and is a board member of both Harley Davidson motorcycles and the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The museum named after him was set up in 2002 through a partnership between himself, the property company behind Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront complex, and the SA government workers’ pension fund.

Could this be a private-public partnership model that East African countries should be encouraged to follow?

It could and they should.