Things change as nearly all of them stay the same

Thursday December 24 2015

(Left) Curiosity over the fence I, (Right) Curiosity over the fence II by Paul Onditi. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY

There is a sameness about some artist’s work that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Yes, artists should experiment and develop — and there are many excellent examples of changing styles in East Africa — but there is also something to be said for a vocabulary that once mastered can express the full range of the artists’ ideas.

To do that of course it has to be sufficiently flexible to encompass a wide reach of thoughts… unless of course the artist is stuck in a rut with nowhere to go.
And that can happen too.

I hope it has not happened to Paul Onditi, whose decorative mixed media works currently adorn the walls of the Art Space, off Riverside Drive; Nairobi’s newest gallery.

This is his first solo show in Kenya this year (until Jan 17) and it shows that, like Ehoodi Kichape, Michael Soi, Thom Ogonga and others, he has found a form that needs an expert to spot the finely nuanced changes in style.

Kichape’s screaming skulls and wild slashes of paint; Soi’s saucy cartoon-like city girls, wide eyed and knowing; Odongo’s dreamy youths living their lives in the twilight of the city’s club land… all examples of sharp social commentary, all well established and comparatively unchanging — for now.


And Onditi? His Everyman figure Smokey is a fairly constant presence in his work, an insouciant bystander who represents perhaps our own alienation at a disrupted environment, polluted, demolished, our lives at the mercy of the multinationals.

Smokey is I would suggest Onditi himself; observer and victim, like us.

And now although the style is similar, a fresh subject emerges and the artist proves his vocabulary can cope, as can his palette of beguiling colours (sharp oranges, viridians, greys and salmon; a heady mix).

These are attractive works that look good on the wall.

Two of the main paintings deal with the New Big Issue: Migrants.

Curiosity Beyond Fence I shows Smokey, bag in hand, before a frontier barrier. There is only a small gap through and beyond lies a dark sea, the Mediterranean, scene of innumerable shipwrecks and drownings.

On his trousers is the pattern of fingerprints — identity is vital — while across his jacket is scrawled in mirror writing a succession of phrases about visa applications. (“Apply only” is one I could just decipher.)

Smokey is at the threshold of a new life.

Curiosity Beyond Fence II shows Smokey safely across the sea but confronted by yet another barrier. No gap in this one. Life is a perpetual struggle with shackles whichever way you turn.

Smokey has my sympathy.

If you cannot afford these works (they run from Ksh40,000 ($392) to Ksh500,000 ($4,900)) there is a full colour catalogue, so you can take the whole thing home.
Just two little caveats.

Many of the works bear the equation 0+1+5=015. I suppose in a way it could add up to that, and it certainly looks profound. But what do these portentous looking numbers actually mean? They are the last part of the date when the pictures were made: the year 2015. Hmmm.

Second, these mixed media works are of paint, ink, film, old prints, transfers and caustic acid on what is proclaimed to be synthetic polyester plate — plastic sheeting to you and me. I know little of plastics but what is polyester but synthetic? “Synthetic polyester plate” sounds very important but I have yet to see natural polyester.

Where would it be from, I wonder? A polyester tree or a flowering plant?

To quote Miss Piggy: “Pretentious? What, moi?” Stamp of the trotter; toss of the head.

Yony Waite

Another established artist whose style remains very familiar is Yony Waite, currently showing textiles at the One-Off at Rosslyn to the west of Nairobi (until Jan 19).

What is exciting about these is that most were made not by her but by members of her Wildebeest women’s group, under her supervision.

These women were asked what, if the world were to end tomorrow, would they most miss?

A wonderful idea and brilliantly repaid by among others Consolata Owino who would miss kangaroos. Ms Owino has never seen one in real life but loves them dearly because of the way they carry their young in their pouch. Her embroidery of them is spot on…

Elsewhere people would miss insects (a beautifully restrained bit of stitching in silver and black), lizards, giraffes, birds, boats, a Lamu mosque, a donkey and matatus.
These must be scary women to meet. Not one of them put their husband on the cloth.

This year began with a show of tree paintings by Waite at the National Museums of Kenya. Now it ends with one by her and her nimbly stitching women.

So let me wish you a very happy and prosperous New Year while I reflect on the truth of the French saying, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose ...”

Or, to put it in English, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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