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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Art in Crisis

Art in Crisis

The crisis in Kenya hangs over the country like smog. Some have lost their lives others their loved ones and homes, even privileged non-Kenyans like me, so far physically unaffected by the crisis, feel the psychological weight of a country we love that seems, at times, to be to be sleep walking towards an abyss. But there are signs that the “silent majority” are beginning to awake and force their politicians to deal with the crisis before it gets completely out of control. Caroline Mutoko an FM DJ from Kiss Fm in Nairobi with her comedian partner presenter "Nyambane" have been wrestling tirelessly with politicians on air, exhorting them and her fellow countrymen to stand up for peace and the ethos of “co-existence” which, despite the horrific acts of hooligan and incited youth, is still at the core of the Kenya that many of us know and love. Caroline Mutoko’s efforts are quite extraordinary and I salute her for her huge courage, heart and strength of character.

When I got to Nairobi about two weeks ago I didn’t expect to find artists already responding to recent tragic events, but believe me, they are. The work of two painters in particular, moved me.

John Kamicha

John is a highly creative and sensitive young man, in happier times known for his whacky sense of humour. The son of well known artist Zachariah Mbuthia, he has been raised in an atmosphere of art. Those familiar with his work can see a crystallisation of his talents over the last year and his recent work is very exciting. Last year Kamicha did a series of works using khangas (women’s traditional wraps) as canvas. Painting and drawing around the traditional motifs on the material, bringing the act of painting closer to his own culture and experience. Since then he has reverted to canvas but both uses pieces of Khanga on his works or uses the Khanga design format as his structure hence in this painting.

Mr Bodyguard, who will guard the Bodyguard?

we see the newly and controversially elected President of Kenya in the centre of the painting where a flower would normally reside in a Khanga design; and his security operatives, frieze like, in a border around the painting. Kamicha has seized on the now ubiquitous image of an African president flanked by his army officer. Human figures reflected in his glasses – possibly his advisors. The common people, tiny at his feet, queue patiently at a polling station. Bananas, the symbol of Kibaki’s unsuccessful constitution referendum campaign, ludicrously frame his head. The controversial Election result “certificate” he clutches firmly in his hand.

Mr Bodyguard. Who will Guard the Bodyguard?- John Kamicha - Acrylic on Canvas

In “Poor Women Carrying Empty Baskets” Kamicha could not be clearer. It is the innocent who are suffering in this chaos. Again, the Khanga is present. The uniquely East African wrap worn by women rich and poor, but mostly the poor – originally from the coast but embraced by women of all tribes in Kenya – worn on the head, round the waist, used to carry babies on the back, the elemental, thoroughly useful, inexpensive, and locally designed if not always manufactured, much loved piece of cloth. As I write this it dawns on me why Kamicha has used the Khanga – it is because it symbolises something deep in Kenya and Africa. It is timeless, practical and beautiful. So this is not some whim of the artist – this is heartfelt.

One could go further and say that the Swahili culture (one of the world’s earliest mixed race civilisations) which invented the Khanga, is the foundation for the national ethos of peaceful co-existence. So the Khanga is in a real sense more of a national flag than the Kenya national flag itself, the latter complete with its spears and shields.

In this painting two women carry their empty baskets. Children, vulnerable and abandoned, look up expectantly for sustenance and guidance. Scenes of destruction are taking place on the left of the figures and on the far left, a European man with spirals on his glasses, indicating inevitable confusion of vision, represents an election observer, with his camera dangling uselessly by his side. On the right hand side is a carved ritual figure often present in Kamicha’s work.

Poor Women Carrying Empty Baskets - John Kamicha - Acrylic on Canvas

John Kamicha’s work features in THE WAY WE LIKE IT Current Trends in the Visual Arts Scene - an artists’ initiative to raise money for the Displaced People, at Nairobi’s Village Market, curated by Xavier Verhost, in collaboration with Ramoma Gallery, sponsored by Commercial Bank of Africa. The Exhibition closes on Febuary 3rd,2008.

Charles Ngatia

Charles is an entirely self taught young artist from a poor background who came to Nairobi as a runaway teenager and who was saved from what would probably have been a life of dissipation through his participation in arts and drama workshops in the slums where he was living. After surviving as a scrap recycler - he trained and worked a mechanic before becoming a full time artist.

I get the sense from Charles that art is his way out of the ghetto – both as a process of self realisation and expression, and as a career. And there is something refreshing about his view of his work, there is no distinction between self advancement and the advancement of humanity, his art is concerned with both.

Charles works humbly in a corner of the communal studio at the Go Down Arts Centre in the industrial area of Nairobi. I had met him before and glossed over his work, which is na├»ve but very adventurous in its use of materials. As I walked past the studio I caught sight of some interesting painted scrap constructions outside, these turned out to be Ngatia’s, which lead me to him and his paintings. Inside I found him working on what he calls his “slums series”. On the wall behind him was this untitled painting, still wet.

Untitled (Slums series) Charles Ngatia - Oil on Canvas

Ngatia had been working on the slums series since before the election violence and one can see the effect of the chaos on his work, with this predominantly black and red painting. With its many compartment of violent scenes muddled in with every day life still going on but threatened, as in the children in the school. Everyday life, painful enough as it is, represented by the Rent Deadline is 5th

Pain Agency. Meanwhile the streets run with blood as people are chased in to buildings and property burnt. If you strain your eyes you might just be able to make out (I am sorry this photograph isn’t as good as it should be) an abandoned pair of flip-flops at the foot of the painting.

Ngatia’s use of language is deliberately funny and part of his appeal.

In this untitled work we find the intriguing “Small Demon Church” and the chilling “Domestic Violence Pub”. Here, and elsewhere, he introduces corrugated cardboard on to the canvas to suggest “Mabati” the ubiquitous corrugated iron sheets. Ngatia’s “Innocent Children Going to School” caption unconsciously echoes the Congolese master, Cheri Samba’s work who has evolved a style where the moral message of the painting from his war torn country is so important that he spells it out in large capital letters.

If you are interested in work from either of these artists drop me an email on

Appeal for Help

If anyone would like to donate some money to help the 300,000 internally displaced people in Kenya (many of whom are children) with bedding and food etc please email Carol Lees of Ramoma Gallery, Nairobi who is coordinating a project for the distribution of aid to those in need.

Carol Lees :

Carol will advise on how you can send money and what it will be spent on. To put this in perspective, James Mbuthia an established artist who works for Carol at Ramoma Gallery currently has 30 displaced people camped in his garden.

Most of us believe that Kenya will pull through and that her qualities of compassion, pragmatism and good humour will prevail, lets all pray for that in what ever way we pray.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Kenya, Zimbabwe and the spirit of artists

Peterson Kamwathi - Charcoal on Paper Jacob Wachira Ezigbo (Kenya) Oil on Canvas

It’s been a sad and grim last few weeks in Kenya though there are many signs of hope. Strange for me as I was in Zimbabwe until about ten days before the election, a country where a coffee cost over a million Zim Dollars and people could not get access to any cash with huge queues outside banks and a withdrawal limit of 10 million Zim dollars per day. I was fairly bullish about Kenya, putting aside any worries from watching opposition campaign rallies in Lamu, where youth had charged around brandishing sticks and looking like they might do some damage if they lost. Interestingly, my daughter went to an opposition party in Lamu just before the election and her friend there gleefully mentioned that they would burn down houses if they lost the election – mercifully that hasn’t happened in Lamu where people are generally very peaceful, but as you will know the Rift Valley is another story all together.

Kenya’s media has been extraordinary throughout all this chaos and violence, they have been united in their continuous and vigorous calls for peace, in fact a friend has suggested that – if peace does prevail in Kenya - that the Kenyan media as a whole be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. As the days pass politicians from both sides of the divide look increasingly selfish and incapable and are, I think, viewed with increasing contempt by many people. It used to be the case under Moi that most people disliked politics – for better or for worse Kenya’s new infatuation with democracy has caught a cold. Looking back, given the ethnic makeup for

Kenya multi party politics Western style has been a recipe for disaster, am not advocating a return to dictatorship but questions should be asked about this model’s suitability to countries like Kenya where ethnicity is a major factor and whose boundaries were draw with rulers wielded by British civil servants.

What has all this got to do with contemporary art? A great deal, actually. Art of all kinds can be a mirror in which societies can observe themselves and promote breakthroughs on thought and feeling. You only have to turn on the television in Kenya to find groups singing peace songs for their country and Eric Wainaina’s song about his country become a second National Anthem.

Artists here have influence. (and unlike the West their messages are not compromised by great affluence) Visual artists are usually less powerful than performers, but nevertheless they make a crucial contribution – especially in Zimbabwe where performance that is critical to the regime is not normally allowed; leaving visual artists, viewed by the authorities as the lunatic fringe, to take up the fight against injustice. There is much that I would like to say about Zimbabwe but in the interests of my continuing visits there and especially in the interest of the artists themselves, discretion will, at least for the time being, be the better part of valour.

I came back from Harare convinced that the most important work to collect there was that which reflected historic contemporary issues. I bought, through Gallery Delta, fourteen small works by Cosmos Shirizinomwa which effectively document the notorious Murambatsvina “operation clean up” in which thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed after the 2002 elections– in most case by their owners under threat of the military. This operation which went on all over Zimbabwe delivered a body blow the morale of the people from which they have yet to recover.

I also bought these two wonderful pieces by Munyaradzi Mazarire a young mixed media artist whose I had noticed before and who is still a student. He is among several compelling young artists shown by Gallery Delta, among others are Tafadzwa Getai, and Admire Kamudzengerere. I shall write more about these artists in due course.

Mazarire’s work speaks for itself the Perspective with Ladder work is one of a series of ladder pieces, as is Exercise 10 feet which to me speaks of a recently prized education system going to waste in contemporary Zimbabwe – the work, devoid of people, the complex equation on the blackboard rendered useless, the legs of the chairs and desk, like most of the population, left dangling.
Munyaradzi Mazarire ( Zimbabwe )- Exercise 10 feet - Mixed Media - 48 x 53cm

Munyaradzi Mazarire (Zimbabwe) Perspective With Ladder - Mixed Media - 48 x 45 cm

Coming back to Kenya; two artists whose work has reflected, possibly anticipated, the current chaos and bloodshed – Peterson Kamwathi and Jacob Wachira Ezigbo. The former with his work charting the abortive constitution making process – see the images of the Bulls below in an earlier posting, and even more so, his beautiful large charcoal drawings of sheep illustrated here above, and featured at his show mounted by Ramoma at La Rustique in Nairobi last year, with the implements of war and death in their shadows.

Ezigbo has show in Nairobi at the moment which opened before the elections – his paintings are both beautiful and dark – there is an utterly authentic taste of the grimness of urban life for the poor in Kenya as well as the universal realities of hope and beauty, creativity, (suggested by the images of birds and flowers) despite hardship – red paint hurled at the canvas mimics blood, hands pointing two ways now suggest to me choices between two extremes of love and hate as well as dismembered body parts possibly referring to the Mungiki sect activities and the brutal police

Jacob Wachira Ezigbo ( Kenya) Oil on Canvas

response in the last six months of last year. Ezigbo is also a great print maker as well as painter and for me it is the iconography of his work that sets him apart from much of Kenya’s artists.

I sign off with a plea to all of you who are not in Kenya – please keep faith with Kenya and don’t let the images of brutality that the world has seen recently cloud your vision of a country that I guess has it all – the beauty and the horror, the rich and the poor, the sea and the mountains, fifty something different tribes and specimens from practically every country on the globe (my English self included) , we hope that the events of the last few weeks will be part of Kenya’s very painful growing pains. Kenya is not the picture post card land that our tourist agencies with their “Jambo Bwana’s” would like to suggest, it is an interesting , vibrant developing country with major social problems and inequalities of wealth combined with many historical social and political injustices that need to be aired and addressed urgently, I guess a good look at Jacob Wachira Ezigbo’s work will explain a lot.

P.S. Since writing this I have heard that Jacob has been forced to flee his Mathare Valley home, he is currently organizing relief supplies for his fellow displaced residents - if you want to make a contribution to the relief effort click on this link