Waiting for Jesse to explode... again

Friday April 13 2012

Photo/Frank Whalley War Veterans by Jesse Ng’ang’a.

When an artist’s subject and style remain consistent, small changes can make a big difference.

In the three years since the last exhibition of paintings by Jesse Ng’ang’a at the now defunct RaMoMa in Parklands, Nairobi, his themes and approach have continued to evolve.

Superficially much is as before — grinning skulls with glaring eyes, frantically written memos to himself pasted to the canvas, bold sweeps of oil stick in shrieking colours, messages, disjointed words, the names of drugs and medical procedures (ECG, for instance) scribbled almost desperately over the surface, the whole lot held together by an unexpectedly subtle colour sense… the pinks, greys and yellows, the deliberately dissonant reds and blues that resound across a room, a pervasive sand and an intense, acidic green that has nothing to do with the calming effect of fields and trees but everything to do with creating a vibrant background from which his figures spring at the viewer with energy and a certain, again unexpected, joi de vivre.

I am reminded always when I see Ng’ang’a’s paintings of Samuel Beckett and that determination he expressed to survive, in spite of the hopelessness of it all.

It has been expressed elsewhere as a certain “grim gaiety” and I think that sums up Ng’ang’a’s work very well.

The artist’s preoccupation was and remains finding cures for all our ills. The skulls were us, were him, were people damaged by life.


When chemicals failed to do the trick, he invented his own panaceas. A landmark painting from that period was the predominantly blue diptych Gnu Gel, named after the mythical substance that both calmed and cured.

Hospitals appeared in his work. They were the refuges we sought. Urban angst, the force that drove such US Neo-Expressionists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, was a term that could have been invented for Ng’ang’a’s work.

Painting under his professional nom-de-plume Ehoodi Kichape, which he translates roughly as the Experienced Beater, he is still exciting and relevant.

But in his latest exhibition of some 20 paintings at the One Off Gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi (until April 25) there is however, a sense of talent marking time, perhaps gathering strength for the next definitive statement.

I am still waiting for another of those explosions of energy, even violence, that marked his major RaMoMa show Elaborations, in January 2009.

Nonetheless the new pictures do reveal steady, if slow, progress with several developments:

Firstly his paintings are now much bigger than before. Most single panels on show are around 6ft square.

The second change is that Ng’ang’a is starting to work directly into the canvas.

Previously most of his pictures were made on sheets of paper that he then pasted together.

This enabled him to change his mind frequently during the creative process without having to rework large areas of a painting, but it had the disadvantage of creating pictures with surfaces that became heavily creased and were difficult to transport.

Given that much of his work is in collections in Canada and Europe this was a bigger problem than it might at first seem.

Working directly onto canvas also indicates a growing confidence in exploring the picture plane, pulling together the disparate elements and making the painting work as a unitary conception, rather than as a collection of parts.

Thirdly, the artist’s subject matter has become more specific in its offer of remedies that he hopes will enable us to live more easily within the chaos of city life.

Developments or simply tweaks, it seems nevertheless that herbal, not chemical, medicine is the way to our salvation.

Hangovers from his previous concerns still appear — the word “Benzexol” (a misspelling of Benzhexol, a drug for treating tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease) is scribbled on Swath while “Amethyl” is written on one large picture called, ominously, Bodily Jabs Inc. But generally, natural cures hold sway.

For example, one repeated motif is the leaf of the neem tree, a plant said to heal almost everything, while other favourite references — both drawn and written — include dandelion, blackjack and aloe vera.

As well as health, other subjects include the treatment of Kenya’s freedom fighters and our dehumanising reduction to ciphers.

In War Veterans, three skeletal figures are shown railing against injustice, their gaping mouths reminding me of Francis Bacon’s Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.

“They fought for our freedom and now in their old age are neglected,” the artist said. In this furious work, the three outlined figures set up a rhythm that compels attention.

And in Registration (one of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition, with its single, central figure and a focused energy) series of scribbled car number plates become a metaphor for the way people have been stripped of their individuality to become simply ID and passport numbers.

There is a sudden shift in pace in Ass and Angel, a lyrical piece with meltingly lovely passages of pink and a soft blue that retells the Bible story of the prophet who rode on an ass, stopped in its tracks by the appearance of an angel.

The angel appears as a disembodied head both stopping the ass and being astonished by it.

Such heads in Ng’ang’a’s work also refer to leaders — a visual pun that presents them as authority figures, the “heads” of organisations — as well as our confused selves.

These are intelligent paintings. They are also instinctive, sincere, forceful, disturbing and, thanks to the artist’s innate colour sense, rather beautiful too.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]