GALLERIES: Conquering kings in the people's name...

Friday September 13 2019

'Heavy Lies the Crown' by Peterson Kamwathi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


The figure stands mysterious and aloof against a backdrop of bamboo and trees.

With a body of pierced steel plate, there rises directly from its shoulders three heads, a towering crown or antlers.

They could be read as the different faces of kingship, the responsibilities of authority or as a garniture symbolising the horned god of the forest, a legend common to many cultures with its overtones of growth and fertility.

All-seeing heads, a crown or antlers, they amount to the same thing—statements of strength and the power to subdue.

This larger than life-size figure, the work of Peterson Kamwathi, is among the most memorable pieces in a sprawling exhibition of more than 200 sculptures by over 50 artists currently at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi.

Cut from a 25mm thick sheet of mild steel and some 2.5 metres tall, its positioning in the gallery’s new sculpture garden enhances its authority.


Certainly the image of a man with antlers (believed by many to be the inspiration for royal crowns) is very old, with such figures drawn on cave walls, either as gods or as hunters disguised to slip into the herd.

They appear too in Celtic myth, North American and South Asian folklore and here in Africa too, with many horned masks and crests.
Is this sculpture simply then a celebration of power?

The clue lies in its title, Heavy Lies the Crown; a take on Shakespeare’s “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

Having first beguiled us with an icon we recognise from somewhere deep within our subconscious, Kamwathi has turned its meaning like a somersault so it becomes the opposite—a comment on the penalties for abusing the responsibilities of power.

Yet as something mystical and steeped in legend the work can also be enjoyed on a superficial level as a commanding piece of constructed sculpture, hard won from its material and ideally placed.

Formally, it is a logical development of Kamwathi’s obsession with the effects of negative space in recording the human form.

The piercings in this series, which began around 2012, echo the spaces between marks made by vigorous life drawing.

In fact Kamwathi sometimes refers to them as his “drawings in steel.”

They spring from a group of expressive studies made in 2011 with black ink on white paper, each a looser, more dynamic progression of his Queue drawings, which in retrospect, can now be seen as sculptures in ink.

The steel we see therefore is a literal copy of the strokes of his heavily loaded Chinese brush, as he caught the poses and volumes of his models.

Kamwathi transferred these drawings to steel plates and then cut them out by laser to make a number of maquettes around 30cm tall in which the shadows they cast precisely echoed the original drawings.

Next came a group of six figures, each of around 1.2 metres called Study for Monument to an Incomplete Rainbow.

Gaily painted they were exhibited first at the official residence of the Belgian ambassador in December 2012 and later at the One-Off before being sold to a private collector.

In early 2015 Kamwathi developed Viewfinders, his 12 over-life-size outdoor sculptures commissioned for the Garden City Mall off Thika Road, Nairobi, where they still stand.

From sheets of steel he cut out and removed the figures, their existence revealed only by the voids they once occupied.

That same year he developed the cutouts as a cluster of positive figures around 2.4 metres tall. They were unpainted and left to patinate with rust.

In some of these the cutting was more stylised yet still based on his drawings.

But now with Heavy Lies the Crown—some eight years after those first drawings—Kamwathi moves forward to a clear declaration of the responsibilities that go with authority.

Bolted together with its construction clearly visible, Heavy Lies the Crown indicates the artist’s acceptance of the physical artifice of sculpture but could also be seen as a suggestion that the imposition of unelected power and arbitrary authority can also be proved to be an artifice.

In this sculpture the body is silver grey, referencing the bark of the surrounding eucalyptus trees; the piercings leave the steel a stylised tracery of branches while the dramatic crest is left to rust, further differentiating it as costume.

As either all-seeing head, crown or antlers it proclaims the right to rule, while a broad reading of the title reminds us that even a figure as apparently mighty as this can be brought down by the people’s will.

In this Kamwathi is continuing the prosyletising that underpins most of his work; a social commentary we first saw in his Sitting Allowance series of charcoals that followed the Post Election Violence of 2007.

What it also shows us is that this restless, technically gifted artist is constantly searching to express new ideas; adapting and developing his past work to extend his practice.

Which is why Kamwathi’s output is so intellectually elegant, interesting, sought after and ultimately so important.