Great art inspires great art; fabulous paintings beget others.
The reputation of Francis Bacon owes much to his 45 or so Screaming Popes, painted in the 1950s and early 60s, which were triggered by a fascination with Velasquez’s portrait of Innocent X.
That painting, made in 1650, presents not so much God’s vicar on Earth as a very human man, clothed with pomp on a throne of crimson and gold, yet wary from a lifetime of political infighting, his ageing face rich in character.
And now Peterson Kamwathi has taken the mystic William Blake’s 1795 painting of a secular ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as the starting point for a drawing that holds the key to his current exhibition.
The Book of Daniel tells us that the king, fearing madness, began to transform into a beast and was restored to humanity only through his Christian faith.
Blake captured Nebuchadnezzar at the height of his torment — on his hands and knees, staring wildly, his limbs ending in fearful claws — before salvation beckoned.
Both the formal qualities of Blake’s painting (composition, the subtle colouring, the quality of drawing with its taut, expressive line) and its narrative appealed greatly to Kamwathi, who perhaps saw in it a benchmark of his own style as well as an elaboration of his personal faith.
His Untitled (after William Blake) is the key that unlocks his exhibition Ebb and Flow, at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn to the west of Nairobi until January 20.
For the drawing — highlighting the possibility of deliverance, even for those in extremis — radiates an understanding of the exhibition’s overarching statement; that mass migration, a tragedy that must be remedied, also symbolises our own journey through life as we explore our place in the wider scheme of things.
We too are migrants.
Where Blake put Nebuchadnezzar bang in the centre of his composition, Kamwathi places the stricken king behind a tilted blue crowd barrier, representing the physical bars that migrants must overcome and the metaphysical bars to our humanity.
Where Blake set his king in an animal’s den, Kamwathi made the background a range of hills that could well be in Kenya…in other words he increased its relevance by tailoring the image to us, now and right here.
Where Blake’s painting was a straight retelling of the Nebuchadnezzar story, Kamwathi’s takes that as a starting point and then points towards the wider issues, both faith-driven and secular, of the search for humanity and an explanation of our lives.
That becomes even clearer from the drawing’s companion piece, Study for Flow, in which Nebuchadnezzar is replaced by a figure taken from a press photograph of a migrant crawling up a Mediterranean beach.
Small at only 27cm by 30cm, yes, but in these two drawings Kamwathi has distilled the entire exhibition into one concise statement.
There are only 15 drawings in this dazzling exposition; all on paper and made with charcoal, coloured pencils, soft pastels, spray paint and collage.
Kamwathi’s adapted image of the crawling man recurs throughout the show, most notably in a huge triptych called Ebb, in which around 160 such figures struggle towards their deliverance.
Lovers of his earlier charcoal drawings with their typically massed tones and wristy attack will find this aplenty in his figure drawings, albeit on a reduced scale (see Ebb and the diptych The Journey: The Destination with its whirl of people caught in a vortex), yet the delicacy of the colouring that marked his more recent work is even more evident.
The softest blues, the palest blush of pinks, the gentlest greens and creams and a stunning caramel offer drawings as lyrical and subtle as they are pointed, while Kamwathi’s compositions heighten the symbolism of his imagery.
In Passage, some 30 standing men, their backs to us, soar across the thick cartridge paper, some behind a mist of soft white, navigating a pattern of stronger white dots that echoes the well-mapped routes that migrants travel.
It possesses an ethereal beauty that is almost magical.
Another exquisite work is Untitled (Adrift). It shows two boats, a solitary migrant on each and tells of the loneliness of the journeys that define their — and our — lives.
The migrants are sitting up; alert, hopeful. On the hull of one boat are printed offensive slogans from the placards of people protesting at their presence… a burden the migrants carry with them, even at sea.
The wake of the nearest boat is a shimmering plume of many colours, flaring from the surface of the sea.
Ebb and Flow is a small and intense exhibition, easy to enjoy. It reveals, explains, respects and exalts the human spirit.
There is not a dud in it.
I have a feeling it will come to be seen as a landmark, rather like Kamwathi’s Sitting Allowance of 2009, which excoriated election corruption.
But this is far more elegant, more subtle, more mature… it is the work of an artist at the peak of his powers and it would sit comfortably in any gallery anywhere.
It is, quite simply, world class.