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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

1 comment:

African Artists said...

Your comments on Zimbabwe are most enlightening. I tend to agree with the choice of artists. Most interesting debate and it would be nice to have an exhibition in London at some point.