The reimagined world of Ivan Rabbiosi

Monday December 11 2023


Nairobi-based painter Ivan Rabbiosi likes to imagine different stories about the people and places around him.

A science professional, who has painted all his life, Rabbiosi has recently started presenting his art at exhibitions.

I came across his works at the Affordable Art Show at the Nairobi National Museum in October and at the Friends of The Arts (Fota) Show the following month.

“My main purpose is to have people interact with my work,” he said.

His earlier art reflections feature ordinary life in Nairobi — the markets, street scenes, people interacting in everyday ways.

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The semi-realistic pictures convey the energy and chaotic vibrancy of life in the city and outskirts settlements that Rabbiosi frequently observes and photographs.

Using artistic licence, he modifies the perspective, background and other elements to produce partly imagined scenarios.

Rabbiosi calls his style realism with imagination, a shift from pure realism, which he felt was a restriction to his creativity.

“I don’t mind if people don’t look like [those] in the picture, because I prefer to paint them naively so that I can fully use my imagination,” he said.

In other paintings, he moves away from realism into a dreamlike state, a method that is becoming a distinguishing quality of his style. He takes obvious reality and digs deeper into alternative standpoints, an ability perhaps drawn from his experience as an animator.

“Already, the element of multiple points of view and multiple perspectives was there in my work so I adopted the same method later to paintings,” he said.

The alternative realities being explored give the pictures an otherworldly quality that makes them even more intriguing. You find yourself gazing at them for long minutes conjuring up your own story. An example is the surreal narrative portrayed in Night’s Embrace, where an aerial-drawn van travels above snowy mountains behind a group of people on a starry night.

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The upside male lion looks quite vanquished beneath the feet of some fashionably dressed women in A Lion’s Defeat. Rabbiosi takes a playful look at a typical safari game drive in the painting called Epic Safari Night, where tourists are tumbling out of Land Rovers and floating over a herd of reclining zebras.

During travels to national parks he was, “fascinated by the animals, the Land Rovers and wildlife not caring about what is happening with the tourists so I want to paint them in a non-judgemental way.”

Rabbiosi says that moving to Kenya two years ago opened up his mind to diverse spaces and cultures not seen in Europe.

“Everything I see here is so inspiring and looks so alive, not like in the West where people sometimes look like zombies,” he said.

His preferred medium is oil paints, which have a longer drying time but produce more vibrant colours and he particularly likes the texture obtained with oils.

Though Rabbiosi reimagines actual places and stories, he does not attempt to explain to viewers the real meaning either.

“I like to hear people’s opinion of what they imagine about a particular picture and I don’t want to suggest too much or be explicit in the painting,” he said.

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He wants to ignite the imagination of the viewer, get people to conjure up their own stories “which means that I’ve been successful."

Rabbiosi has had a passion for art since childhood and attended a Liceo Artistico High School in Italy, which focuses on art studies. But, later, he changed careers to the sciences and attained a PhD in physics from Strathclyde University in Glasgow, UK.

Even while working as a science researcher for years, Rabbiosi continued to paint and draw, finally returning to his first love in 2004 by mastering the art of animation.

Then followed a successful career as a scriptwriter, animator and filmmaker.

Living in Kenya has expanded the visual storytelling opportunities, allowing him to incorporate nature themes and African wildlife on the canvas.

Earlier works seemed very inspired by urban life but more recent paintings combine characters from the natural world in human settings, while still continuing the distorted reality technique that he favours.

Rabbiosi aspires to be a professional painter even though for the moment it is just a passion. “But for this to happen I have to paint, paint, and paint. So this is what I am focusing on.”