The absence of art as an examinable subject in Kenya’s public schools has created a vacuum — and as we have been told many times, nature abhors a vacuum.
The result: Established artists have for long plugged the gap and helped to enhance the gene pool of formal skills.
Sterling work by the figurative painter Patrick Mukabi in teaching the basics to generations of young artists was highlighted here last week. He has helped to develop around 120 of them so far, he reckons. And some of them have gone on to take pupils of their own, cascading skills still further.
Someone should give him a medal. But of course Mukabi, while probably the most prominent of the mentors, is not alone.
Peterson Kamwathi is generous with his time in teaching printmaking — particularly such esoteric techniques as aquatint etching — while John Silver and Thom Ogonga have also run print workshops. Maral Bolouri and Mercy Kagia and both ran drawing classes, at Kuona Trust and the Polka Dot gallery in Karen, respectively.
There are many others. In Tanzania and Uganda, the artists rally round too. The Dar-based painter Haji Chilonga is one example and one of his pupils, the delightfully named Happy Robert, was recently encouraged to place six paintings at Banana Hill Art Gallery, to the west of Nairobi.
These are all portraits in acrylics on canvas, and they show some promise. The underlying drawing is generally sound. Robert has a strong and purposeful line and she works accurately within tonal scales. Typical is Lady in Blue, some 52cm by 38cm, and like the others it would make an attractive addition to someone’s wall.
Perhaps inevitably these paintings borrow heavily from Chilonga’s style, which includes those sudden splashes of seemingly irrelevant colour that also mark the portraits of Kenya’s Patrick Kinuthia and Coster Ojwang’.
While that expressionist tic tends to take this viewer at least by surprise in what is otherwise fairly straightforward portraiture, these sudden stabs of paint do add a superficial energy to the heads, although that comes at the expense of flattening them into the similarly marked background — and of losing the chance to present a quieter and deeper truth about the sitters. Not surprisingly, most of the portraits turn out to be imaginary.
A couple of kilometres down the hill, at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, three more young painters are on show in an adjunct to the landmark exhibition by Peterson Kamwathi that is just ending.
It will be replaced by 20 or so portraits by Olivia Pendergast, oil on canvas, technically brilliant, quirky, lively and oddly nervous. Nearly all have the artist’s trademark tiny heads, huge hands and bizarrely articulated shoulders. The thin washes of oil paint create an attractive luminosity.
The sitters — real people unlike those of Happy Robert et al — have a curiously unsettled look, however; an edginess that I quite like, but I think her deliberate, clever distortions of the human figure would ultimately get me down.
In all fairness I have to add that I’m not so fond of Egon Schiele either, so the fault is probably mine, and one of a taste; not Pendergast’s and certainly not one stemming from any lack of formal ability, in which this painter abounds.
The three emerging talents currently at the One-Off are Victor Mwangi, Martin Musyoka and David Mucai; all fine art and design students at Kenyatta University, and all showing thanks to Kamwathi who picked them out from the crowd as promising to the point that he persuaded gallery director Carol Lees to offer them space.
This was their first exhibition in a major gallery and they proved to be a hit, with strong sales and, perhaps more importantly at their stage of development, favourable notice from collectors and other artists.
Musyoka turns out to have a penchant for life drawing, shown in a large portrait of a young woman sitting pensively on a public bench. Called Chilled, the drawing is sound, the half-turn of the head convincing and any difficulty in showing the eyes (and so many artists seem to have trouble with that) solved by hiding them behind a snazzy pair of aviators… a woman whom I would guess the artist knows well.
Across from her, he offered a couple of accurate drawings of reclining figures, in glass marking pencils and pastels on sugar paper. The one that has been left unsold is a studio study notable for its foreshortening; an artist learning his trade and learning it well.
Mwangi presents his figures as boldly stylised machines to create unfolding narratives of city life, while Mucai’s drawings are primarily allegorical. His Lion Heart shows a fashionable young man (jaunty hat, jeans ripped at the knee) stepping from the reflected jaws of a lion. His Triumph of the Lamb, a richly layered painting that defies its small size, for some reason shows more horned ram than lamb.
I have invented an artist. In last week’s review of the continuing exhibition by Kaloki Nyamai at the Circle Art Gallery in Lavington, I suggested one of his influences was the Haitian neo-expressionist Jean Paul Basquiat. It should of course have been Jean Michel Basquiat… a stupid mistake, so my apologies to his memory and to you.