Some exhibitions are like fish farms where the trout are so crammed together they rely for life on extra air pumped into the ponds.
In these shows you can hardly look at one painting without another intruding and the overall sense is of chaos, work just banged up on the walls rather than carefully presented for your pleasure.
A relief then to visit an exhibition where the pictures are so separated that each commands its own area, making a clear statement to consider. Here the fish have space to cruise majestically through still waters.
The hang was by the painters themselves, with the minimalist approach extending even to the title of their exhibition, simply the names of the three artists taking part.
In this case the names speak for themselves — three of the most important artists in the region, each with an international reputation. The three, and the name of the show, are Peterson Kamwathi/Beatrice Wanjiku/ Justus Kyalo. Their exhibition is on at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi.
In the echoing L-shaped hall, there are just 12 paintings on the walls, one print and two groups of sculptures. There is space to walk around, to appreciate and to enjoy.
To repeat a truism, less is more.
These artists complement each other because each offers insights into different areas of our lives while investigating themselves. All art is a self portrait, as they say.
Kamwathi interrogates society, Wanjiku examines the individual soul and Kyalo plays with the colours, textures and light of the savannah landscape. It is far more complex than that, of course, much more nuanced, but as a broad brush indication of their differences and intent, it will do.
Kamwathi shows two groups of steel sculptures plus one small print. The larger sculptures, of five figures painted in bright colours, are effectively scaled up 3D versions of his ink drawings. Called Study for Monument to a Rainbow, the colours echo diversity (of ethnicity, politics and religion), and have been placed at the angle of the L, articulating the two legs of the hall.
Far smaller are four more figures, silhouettes in rusted steel that presage his recently completed commission for the Garden City development on the outskirts of the capital… a virtuoso group of 12 figures created as voids within rectangles, a dazzling use of negative space.
Wanjiku presents two diptychs, one large figurative painting and two small studies of a human head, and shows her continuing her current struggle with the demons that drive us.
The figures are distorted, huge and sinister; some bent double like monsters from a nightmare; all with threatening mouths that glitter with small, pointed teeth.
The artist’s handwriting in blood red, black or white rides across some of the figures, attempting to impose control. Nevertheless, this is a walk into darkness.
Wanjiku’s work excites comparisons with great artists. Their fight is now hers. Some see in her echoes of the gloomy Norwegian Edvard Munch with his focus on human misery. I see Francisco Goya and the Satanic ogres that he painted late in life — his struggle with evil. Both considered the meaning of life and found it frightening. And I suspect in those introspective hours at the easel, so does she.
Kyalo, the third of these artists, shows seven abstracts, all on the grand scale.
There is rhythm in his colour combinations, the sweep of his brushes and the precision with which he places what few recognisable elements he allows… a milky horizontal bar against a turquoise background in Mgagaa na Apwa (Work brings its rewards) or the black rectangles set in cobalt blue in Mwaya Zamarady (Portrait of a Friend). His idiomatic titles preclude precise translations.
Texture is another important component of his work, whether that of burnt plastics in his landscapes from the Magofu (Ruins) series or the crinkled silver of Enjoy the Silence; an invitation to celebrate with him the beauty of his home countryside.
Colour, form, texture; it is just like looking at any other painting. The only thing you cannot say for sure is that it has caught a likeness, or looks real.
Or maybe you can.
For one virtue of abstract art is that it projects emotions without the rigour of forcing that likeness. It performs a visual dance, becomes music, is an entirely visceral experience. In short it gets right to the heart of the matter.
And surely that is the essence of art.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.