There were always three of us in this marriage, Princess Di famously said.
And right now there are three of us in the marriage of painter Jes’se Ng’ang’a and Art: himself, his alter ego Ehoodi Kichape and their main inspiration, the New York painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Kichape, says Ng’ang’a, is the artist within himself — the painter who stays up through the night in his studio at Kawangare, hours after Ng’ang’a has finished his day’s work teaching art to street kids.
His hero Basquiat, the son of a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, died in 1988, aged 27, of a heroin and cocaine overdose, but his work lives on as some of the most original and expensive of the 1980s.
A graffiti artist who became the darling of international salerooms, Basquiat defined the school dubbed the Neo-Expressionists.
Their triumph was to create a new style for the 1980s — hot, exciting, a visceral, violent response to the chaos and decay that surrounded them.
Jes’se Ng’ang’a is a fine example of their followers.
You can see his work at the RaMoMA in Parklands, Nairobi, where his exhibition. Elaborations, will be up until February 15.
Overall, the paintings look street smart, real grown-up art — even something to shake our heads over with their puzzling collisions of imagery.
But his colours are strong, the pictures make bold statements on the wall and there’s a sense that something intelligent is happening here.
They are the sort of pictures you come across in coffee table art books, or hung in the halls of Western galleries; perhaps surprising in Nairobi.
Or perhaps not.
Because in one sense, we are already very familiar with Neo-Expressionism. Isn’t this like the artwork we see every day, plastered on matatus or adorning rally cars — a similar reliance on lettering and strong, simple graphics?
OK, the paintings at RaMoMA are more violent, if also more subtle, sophisticated and cohesive than those on Route 111, but they come straight from the same wellspring — the street.
Spare and lean, Ng’ang’a’s paintings therefore owe a debt to New York and Europe (through his other influences, Francis Bacon and Jean Dubuffet) but are also strangely familiar and chime with our own surroundings.
With their interlocking planes of tension and succulent runs of colour, their printed and scrawled ephemera pasted to the canvas, and an array of childlike icons, these paintings look almost painfully hip… just the thing to impress the boss when he calls for dinner, or the staff if hung in a corporate hall.
The pictures at RaMoMA run in a stream of consciousness from the ground floor gallery, up the stairwell, to a first floor room dominated by the howling blues and crimsons of Man against City.
Frantic scribbling on each canvas includes medical references, particularly to mental illness, the sort of self-analysis found on HIV body maps, and one picture downstairs that looks like a blackboard (it’s even mounted on an easel) offers a list of rooms to rent with chalked up prices.
Both Basquiat and Bacon, incidentally, were self-taught like Ng’ang’a, and both found inspiration in medical textbooks.
In the case of Basquiat, it was Gray’s Anatomy – hence the screaming skulls, and the bones glimpsed within the peeled flesh of some of his figures; icons freely borrowed by Ng’ang’a.
Bacon used surgical diagrams in his work, and he was particularly fond of one book that featured delicately coloured illustrations of diseases of the mouth.
Teeth glittering against the frothy pinks and browns of decomposing gums, he felt, offered many artistic possibilities.
Ng’ang’a has followed suit to a slightly less violent extent although he retains, to use a phrase of Bacon’s, “the brutality of fact.”
It can be seen in most of the works on show, including a portrait of his father in which he threatens visitors like a hooded terrorist.
In a quieter mood, there is on the staircase one painting, untitled and symphonic in creams and greys, that has the elegance of a musical score. Drawings scratched into the paint include a table and a cup, as artless as can be.
Ali Farka downstairs pays tribute to the genius of Afro blues — the portrait painted on paper then pasted onto the loosely hung canvas, where it joins a handwritten list of titles an––––d playing times from Savannah, a favourite CD: Blue on black, a bruise against the memory.
The writing on his pictures, Ng’ang’a told me, is often deliberately misspelt.
“I don’t want people to get the meaning of my pictures from the writing, so some of it doesn’t make sense, some of it does,” he told me. “I just want people to see and enjoy the painting. I’m creating stories for people.”
Some of the stories would make the Brothers Grimm shrink from the telling.
The title A Burnt Head gives you a sense of just one of the paintings. It creates a problem for people who might admire the work but do not want to sit in their living rooms opposite pictures of madness and death.
“The pictures are best in galleries. They are meant to be seen, then you go; not in a house. Me too, I am not comfortable with some of my paintings,” Ng’ang’a admits.
But he refutes suggestions that he is overly concerned with mortality.
“The skulls are not death. They are the internal side of the head. I believe the outside of the person is just dressing — I want to get to the inside of the person, especially the head.”
He has a nice way of debunking artistic pretension, though. When discussing the sudden switches of media — from oils to acrylics to chalks, oil pastels and patches of collage — he says simply: “I haven’t always got the materials, the paints to finish them. So when I run out of paint, I have to cover up the bare patches with my drawings, and paste them on, or fill in with some writing.”
In spite of the shortage of materials, this exhibition represents a wild, frantic stab at self-expression. I found it an exhilarating switchback ride of creation — an exploration of the fairground within the artist’s soul.
And like a fairground, this show is an exhausting place to visit, with its tumult of imagery, heaped together, piled up nuance upon nuance, slashed, splashed, scribbled, scrawled and smashed, fighting for breath on the walls.
The most expensive picture in the show, Prosthetic Head, features wild lemon yellow and crimson passages sonorous against black. It costs a precise Ksh169,840 ($2,205); which is rather modest when compared with his hero Basquiat’s record mark of $14.6 million.
So Ng’ang’a has some way to go – and not just in his pricing.
It is true that he is for now heavily influenced by Basquiat and the Neo-Expresionists of New York.
He acknowledges the debt — both to him, to Bacon (“I’m so scared of Bacon”) and to a lesser extent Dubuffet, who took his inspiration from the paintings of children, prisoners and the insane. But Ng’ang’a points out that at 27 years of age and having been a painter for only five years, he has to start somewhere.
“I understand that people say I’m copying Basquiat, but I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. I’m growing and I have to stand on others’ shoulders to grow.”
He continues: “It has to take some time. Very few people can discover things like Jean-Michel Basquiat. He found a new way of communicating. I don’t know what I’m going to do. It just goes on, goes on, goes on.”
He said of his first exposure to Basquiat: “I felt I had seen him before. His language was the word I understood and would like to speak. He was so eloquent.”
In the New Yorker, therefore, Ng’ang’a found the perfect vocabulary to express his own feelings.
The trouble is that some of Ng’ang’a’s paintings are so good that he has unintentionally upped the bar and forced us to see them outside a purely Kenyan context, and to judge them against the standard set by his own hero.
In any case, if the instinct is sincere, do similarities of style really matter?
Can you at a glance tell the difference between, say, Juan Gris, Picasso and Braque in their Cubist phases, or between Manet and Monet, or indeed any one of the Pre-Raphaelites?
Ng’ang’a strikes me not as a copyist but as a genuine outpost of the Neo-Expressionist school.
Most of his pictures do pass one acid test: They work by themselves and not simply as echoes of a greater artist. In some, however, the direction is shaky and the co-ordination of colour fields less certain.
The real trouble with being a Neo-Expressionist these days is not that it emulates someone else’s genius, but that it was a revolution that ended more than 20 years ago. Today something new is needed, something more than a restating of what has already been done.
If you want a starry, starry night you turn to Van Gogh, not the thousands who followed in his brushstrokes.
And if you want the desperate urgency that was the Neo-Expressionist response to the urban breakdown of the 1980s, you can always seek out the originals. Some of them, like Julian Schnabel, are still alive and painting strongly.
Ng’ang’a, I believe, is a genuine artist with very real demons to battle — including the plight of street children and the mentally ill, plus the need to find some sort of response to the confusion around us.
He helps street children by teaching them art through the Kuruka Maisha group at the GoDown and he fights constantly for a better deal for those seized by mental illness through his work as secretary of the Schizophrenia Foundation of Kenya, which he helped to establish.
Time will show whether he will respond to the casual chaos of urban living by creating an artistic language entirely his own, or whether he will remain an honest follower of a vibrant originator.
But whichever way it goes, I do know that Jes’se Ng’ang’a — or his painterly other self, Ehoodi Kichape — is one of the most exciting things to happen to Kenyan art in years.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. E-mail: [email protected]