Formal skills are gaining ground in East African art. And about time too.
An ability to draw accurately, to paint seductively, to compose with authority and to possess some sense of colour are surely requisites for a career in art.
It seems obvious and at last the realisation is gaining momentum.
Certainly there is beauty in Outsider Art (Kivuthi Mbuno and Ancent Soi being my usual go-to suspects to make that point) but now eschewed for the most part are the technically clunky, if vigorous and occasionally charming, offerings of the so called First Generation of artists, whose main contribution was to prove it is possible to make a livelihood through art.
A lot of the improvement in standards can be attributed to the figurative painter Patrick Mukabi, whose devotion to encouraging beginners through an insistence on an understanding of anatomy, of volume, composition, colour and the vitality of line has inspired dozens of the finest young artists in this region.
His method is simple. You start by drawing the play of light on pyramids, cubes and cylinders before you even get near the human form. Only after that come the live models. As a learning method, it is difficult, tiring, at times frankly boring but essential.
Of course Mukabi is not the sole source of skills, although many of today’s better artists can trace their beginnings to the rigour of his studio.
Many of this new generation were brought to our attention by Danda Jaroljmek with her Young Guns show some 18 months ago at the Circle Art Gallery in Lavington.
It was there I first saw paintings by one of Mukabi’s pupils from years back, Kaloki Nyamai, and now (until February 25) he is making a welcome return with a solo show called The Fire Next Time, a group of eight paintings which continue his interest in the links between past and present.
They are of mixed media on canvas, unframed and hanging a foot or so away from the wall, in three cases spreading across the floor; an intrusion into the viewing space that ensures reciprocal engagement.
These canvases examine the past and how it relates to the post-colonial present. A variety of symbols explore stories told to him by his grandmother, and are steeped in the Kamba culture.
A three-legged stool (although not of Kamba pattern) is of a type found throughout the continent and speaks of a pan-African culture and broader struggle, while sisal that trails on the floor reminds us of Kamba wedding rituals where the strings suggest the bride price.
Images of cows represent wealth. Boxes of red and yellow and photo-transferred figures from another age (which themselves indicate continuity of culture) signify quiet thought and decision making, while across the thick, creamy white backgrounds run lines of stitching suggesting constricting gender roles.
The edges of some of the canvases have been subjected to controlled burning, symbolic perhaps of the fires that destroyed homes and families.
Finally, lines of black spray paint cross the canvasses with unexpected runs, whirls and loops uniting the many disparate elements.
Painting, stitching, sisal, spray paint… Nyamai’s performance is a virtuoso display of formal skills; he can draw, paint, compose and use colour effectively.
His influences appear to be entirely African (including visual quotations from the Haitian Jean Michel Basquiat) and the overall effect is a well mannered mélange of styles including those of a tamed down Ehoodi Kichape, Paul Onditi with his photo transfer imagery, and Shabu Mwangi in his sparing accents of colour.
The idea of hanging the paintings free from the wall could have come from El Anatsui or Maliza Kiasuswa (shown to acclaim at the Circle in February last year) but perhaps, even given the intellectual thrust of this exhibition, it would be fanciful to see it as an oblique reference to David Anderson’s book about the struggle for Independence, Histories of the Hanged.
It is true that the works are repetitive, but I feel that is a function of the need to interpret a theme rather than any shortage of ideas.
These paintings, we are told, were spurred by what the artist saw as, “The intimate relationship between colonial violence and Independence.”
Nyamai wanted, “to investigate how we imagine ourselves when precariousness defines our lived experience,” and to examine, “reparations through recollections of tragedy.”
For many years, the artist told me, he has considered his own identity as a black person within the wider international community… and as this exhibition demonstrates, he has developed an elegant visual lexicon to express this.
The statement therefore is in place but it is difficult to read at first sight. It needs a guide, a dictionary if you like, to make it coherent to us.
Armed with this, Nyamai’s thesis becomes clearer; his intelligence shines through each painting and I can see his point — but whether his investigations offer a convincing conclusion I am not really qualified to judge.
For just as Nyamai is part of a post-colonial generation with an identity rooted in his cultural history, so I have my own history — born long before Independence — and my own ambiguous identity.
What I can state with certainty is that this work is well made and almost eerily beautiful.
But let others judge its effectiveness as a forceful polemic; not me.
Correction: Haitian neo-expressionist Jean Michel Basquiat is not Jean Paul Basquiat as earlier version indicated.