A show in the pincers of a coconut crab

Thursday August 28 2014

Nelson Mandela by Art Odhis. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Should you visit the Mpunguti islands off the coast of Kenya, tread with care.

They are home to the coconut crab, the largest of all land-living crustaceans that can weigh in at 4kg and measure one metre across.

Not only your toes are at risk. For these things climb the trees, snip off the coconuts then tear them open with their mighty pincers to get at the flesh.
You have been warned.

But how do I know all this, other than being like most journalists a repository for all sorts of useless information?

I know it because one of these monsters is currently the star attraction in the foyer of the National Museum of Kenya, on Museum Hill Nairobi.

A stuffed specimen (small but still amazing at one foot long and weighing around 1kg) is in the glass display case previously occupied by the so-called pancake tortoise, which I still like to think was a normal tortoise trodden on in error by a careless curator.


Is there anything so wonderful as Nature? Can art compete — even though Nature sometimes needs a helping hand to be more organised, as any artist will tell you?

I do not envy artists exhibiting at the museum with that crab in the foyer: Too much to live up to, too easy to disappoint.

But such has been the task this month of one Art Odhis who is showing 20 acrylics on canvas in the adjoining ground floor gallery.
And he has made a decent fist of it.

In a show called Africa, an Art Exploration of African Culture and Legends, these pictures are big, bold and brash and seem to be the artistic equivalent of the coconut crab.

The Legends, it turns out, are famous people, not folk stories. Eleven of the paintings are portraits of the great and the good, with a cattle rustler thrown in. They seize your attention and threaten to overpower you with their broad-brush bravado.

Some of the sitters fare well, others are less successful. Odhis, with his nascent gift for caricature, catches the petulant pout of Muammar Gaddafi but none of the menace of Idi Amin Dada. He makes Winnie Mandela look like an aged crone but the kindly face of her late hubby is well realised in a strong diptych, the split of the picture plane adding both the element of surprise and energy.

Mobutu, Lumumba are passable; a gentle, quizzical Wole Soyinka and a piercing Jomo Kenyatta are brilliant. A mixed bag then, but with underlying structure and an assured attack that does the artist credit.

The remaining nine paintings are every-day scenes lumped under Culture. They are snapshots of life — the market, a village beauty, dancers at school, a child drumming, elephants with their heads like skulls conveying the threat of extinction…

Odhis, an artist new to me, is the nom-de-peintre of Arthur Patrick Odhiambo, born in Kisumu and now living and painting at Kahawa, Nairobi.

A 25-year-old student of environmental planning in his final year at Kenyatta University, he is self taught and offers his work to fellow students for their advice and comments.

Previously, Odhis has shown the occasional piece at the Banana Hill Art Centre but this is his first solo exhibition.

Congratulations then to a young artist with the determination to make his mark — and to the museum for taking on an unknown and giving him the chance that, on this showing, he clearly deserves.

Be happy, be bold, his poster exhorts. And for sure, these paintings live up to the billing.

And now comes news of another example of bold Kenyan art this time being shown abroad, in circumstances so appropriate that I can barely contain myself.

Should you feel the call of the fjords — and many do — hasten to Trondheim, that welcoming city halfway up (or down) the Norwegian coastline.

There you will find a new tattoo parlour and among the bottles of ink, nasty needles and other paraphernalia you can marvel at what is on the walls — five big, bold paintings by Ehoodi Kichapi, whose rough, urban imagery is an absolutely perfect fit.

Three of the pictures came from his recent exhibition at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi; the other two — one of a pig and one of a crocodile — were from the gallery store.

Whether customers will want a screaming skull emblazoned on their bottoms is another matter, but I am sure they will be tempted by the paintings to go for something a touch more adventurous than a traditional bluebird or “Mother,” with a heart.

Unless of course the heart is bleeding and the bluebird has just been shot.

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