Seated Figures are cut above the rest

Friday March 25 2016

Seated 2 by David Thuku. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Cutting out paper to make art is nothing new.

It is thought to have begun with the Chinese, like so many other of their inventions: Writing, gunpowder, kites, putting up high walls to keep people out…

That was around 1,500 years ago and 1,000 years later it had spread around the world.

It remains popular in all its guises — as medallions, wrappings, puppets, silhouettes and lanterns, plus ornate sheets of delicately cut out letters that form Jewish marriage contracts called ketubot.

However, what many would regard as essentially craft work does in the hands of genius become art, a point proved by the fabulous blue nudes and the brilliantly coloured panels and friezes made by Henri Matisse around the late 1940s and early 50s.

The Russian Constructivists Naum Gabo and Aleksandr Rodchenko with their concern for 3-D, space and new materials made great use of the technique too.
Now Kenyan artists are turning to the medium.


John Kamicha led the way last year with rows of dancing figures scissored from green paper to reinforce the message Behave Responsibly in an exhibition at the Kuona Trust.

Now David Thuku has given cutouts a powerful new twist in a show of 17 creations at the Art Space in Nairobi’s Riverside, on until April 9.

What is fascinating about these is his technique of layering the coloured paper sheets, each serving like the different plate of a lino cut.

Thus starting on a white ground, in Seated 2, Thuku layers on orange, blue, black and grey. Blue becomes the background, with orange glimpsed only as the woman’s eyes, cut through the black, which is her seated figure.

On the black is grey for her dress (which also models her hat and decorates the chair) with the neckline and cuffs cut deep down to the white ground.

Grey and black create mystery, the orange eyes burn brightly, white defines the dress; elsewhere blue, buff, yellow and red sing vibrantly from the walls.
It is both clever and effective.

Thuku calls these works Sgraffito using Paper; sgraffito being reserved usually to describe the decoration on pottery where a sharpened stick is scratched through the surface glaze to reveal the underlying colour.

The technique however is not an end in itself but a way he has developed to project his message more clearly.

For this is a show about decisions and the lack of them. Called This for That it explores reasons why people make bad choices.

Thuku’s bold creations fall into five categories: Pointers, Lamenters, Bystanders, Conformers and Seated Figures.

Pointers have only one hand and use it to point the blame at someone, anyone, else.

Lamenters have no hands; they are not active but regret the current state of affairs.

Bystanders are aware something is wrong but are powerless to act, while Conformers, their faces framed, have been boxed in by the status quo.

Thuku’s Seated Figures are watching and willing to act but do not know what to do. Their eyes look out at us because they expect someone else to have the solution. Some have no mouths; others have mouths but choose to remain silent.

They are perhaps the most interesting of his cast of the helpless and the damned.

There appears to be no heroes in Thuku’s world.

Thuku shares the show with Michael Musyoka, who offers 10 acrylics on canvas.

Complex and ingeniously composed, his Surrealist paintings lay bare his experience of being questioned by society.
Many contain the sign Pawn Street.

We are all pawns on the chessboard of life — and indeed a few chess pieces are included in some of the paintings — or possibly it is too that all our thoughts and deeds have been pawned.

We are in hock to our own society.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.