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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.


Musonda Mumba said...

Hi Ed,

This is such a sad period for these amazing artists. I hope that things get better!!! I am certainly keen to see their work here in Nairobi. I will keep reading your blog to get updates...keep up the great work!!!


RV Dealer said...

I really feel bad for Kenya after knowing its condition.