GALLERIES: Let’s get real; why copying photos is a circus trick…

Saturday July 18 2020

Muscovite Beauty by Clavers Odhiambo, and right, The Soft Star by Derrick Munene. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY


Live exhibitions are back, with venues as imaginative as ever.

Galleries and open studios are an obvious choice while hotels, restaurants and clubs —Michael Soi shows regularly at the Havana in Nairobi’s louche Westlands area — are still proving popular. And so too are furniture showrooms.

Timothy Brooke showed the way some years ago with an exhibition in Nairobi’s CBD and he was soon followed by Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos in rooms adjoining the furniture workshop of designer Marc Van Rampelberg.

Now comes William Ndwiga of the Little Art Gallery with a selling exhibition sponsored by the Secret Garden Furniture company of Karen. Of 16 paintings, three drawings and two collages, it is on at the Village Market near the city’s UN headquarters until later this month.

If there is a common style to the work it would be best described as Modern Realism, in a couple of cases extending to hyper-realism.

The idea is that a painting has the time taken to make it built into the finished piece and therefore offers a greater insight into the subject than the photograph on which it is usually based.


For this to work there has to be some evidence of human endeavour and in nearly all the hyper-realist paintings I have seen that is simply not the case.

It seems miraculous when it is Hans Holbein capturing the texture of a fur cuff on a silken robe, from close first-hand observation. But when it is a slavish reproduction of the original photograph, which usually has been made by someone else in any case, then it strikes me as a bit of a circus trick; clever and entertaining but ultimately somewhat pointless.

Step forward then the clever and entertaining Clavers Odhiambo and John Okumu.

Odhiambo who has already built a reputation for his hyper-realist portraits, has formidable skills and his ability to reproduce what is set before him can astonish.

Here his 2018 painting of the face of a young woman, called Muscovite Beauty, is 180cm by 120cm and dominates the hall.

Most of the work has been done before he even picks up his sable brush; the form, tones and textures are already described in the photograph and copying them becomes an illustrator’s job. And Odhiambo does it very well.

To do so is certainly very good training. Normally artists hone their skills and understanding by copying Old Masters in the world’s great galleries. Unfortunately, Old Masters are in short supply in East Africa, more so after the Delamere trustees flogged off the Breughel that hung over his Lordship’s sideboard at Elementeita.

It is true that the large scale of Odhiambo’s paintings adds power… but nowadays a photograph can be blown up to that size too.

Forgetting for the moment possible copyright issues that might arise from meticulous reproductions, use photos as references by all means — as inspirational starting points — but as an end in themselves? No.

Nonetheless, Odhiambo’s latest essay into female loveliness will certainly stand him well for the day he runs into a living, breathing Muscovite Beauty of his own. Want a lifelike portrait, Svetlana? Walk this way.

John Okumu offers two cityscapes — including one of Lviv in the Ukraine that is eye-wateringly detailed — plus a still life with a brass coffee pot.

If he had used a wider range of pencil leads it would have given greater depth and tone yet even if he had done so I was left feeling that his concentration and copying skills that went into these works could ultimately be better used to develop a practice based on his own creative spirit.

Creativity was certainly on show in the two collages by Derick Munene who is based at the Dust Depo studios adjoining Nairobi’s railway museum.

Using layers of paper cut-outs Munene built up two arresting portraits; one of a young woman labelled A Gracious Role Model for Our Times and called A Soft Star and another of A Boy in a Hat.

Nearby Coster Ojwang’s four figure paintings — including a powerful monochrome study of a young woman called Fluorine — demonstrate an awareness of form while his mentor Patrick Kinuthia’s early painting of a woman From the River shows the welcome restraint that marks his landscape sketches.

Three bright paintings by Michael Soi in his typical comic book style examine Nairobi’s wondrous nightlife… two girls embracing in That Girl; a pole dancer called Pinky; and a leggy lady with long blonde hair in a club called — you’ve guessed it already — Havana.