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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Richard Onyango's Homage to the African Vehicle

I had a show in Lamu in August 08 which featured twelve artists from across Africa, among them Kenya's internationally acclaimed Richard Onyango. Richard of the same ethnic group as Barrack Obama's Kenyan father which may bring him to the world's attention but he deserves to be there anyway. One of the centre pieces was his painting of a bus - this one - featured below - unusually desolate - the bus irredeemably stuck in the mud; the burnt out trees in the background. Onyango paints entirely from his memory, I am not sure if any other artist has ever worked the way he works... in this painting, for example, he goes back to when he was nine years old to retrieve the image of this particular bus that he had travelled on with his father did eventually break down and which they abandoned in favour of a pick up truck to a nearby town (where Richard was narly killed by a snake!). Bizarrely Onyango recently met the driver of the very same bus - now an old man living near to him in Malindi - who was able to point out a number of innacuracies in the painting ! Extraordinary.

Another work in the show was a painting of the Titanic - spelt in this case " Taitanic" don't know if this is a deliberate misspelling or not - probably not - leaving Southampton on its fateful voyage on April 10th, 1912. Interestingly the passengers appear to be mostly Muslim women in veils. Richard says they are dressed in period costume, but they look very coastal Kenyan to me. He tells a story about when he was painting this his first painting of the Titanic, working through the night as he often does, listening to the BBC on the television in the house where he stays, suddenly to his amazement, there is an interview with the last surviving passenger from the Titanic who as a tiny baby was lowered down the side of the boat in a basket.

Both works seemed to capture and anticipate the mood of both Kenya's uncertain recovery from the nightmares of the elections and the dire global situation ahead of financial, ice cap and terrorist meltdowns. Indeed little do we know last August how bad things would get - but Richard Onyango is no ordinary artist. All of this was set in Gallery Baraka which is itself a decommissioned Ismaeli mosque.

Sylvia De lap my friend, musician, artist, organic gardener and astrologer was also in the Lamu show and it was she that coined the phrase about Onyango's work that has stuck in my mind. "He has a great feeling for vehicles" she said.

And indeed he has - the African bus - loved, feared by cyclists, nervous passengers and small cars, reviled when they crash devastatingly which they frequently do, admired by small boys, the kings of the road. The bringers of life to the rural areas, with their extravagant horns, delivering people young old, pregnant, sick and healthy,chickens, food, post, products.

The african truck - where every journey is a safari and an adventure with unknown possibilities - breakdowns, stickings in the mud, accidents,robberies, sexual liaisons and disease,even death, friendship, companionship, humour and excitement.

The African ferry - the one pictured below is the Likoni ferry which normally work quite well but on occasions drifts horrifyingly towards the ocean as all engines fail whilst the largely non swimming passengers wail

The African train - this one the Mombasa Nairobi train, sold a few years back to a South African corporation who appear to have run it further in to the ground - but what a journey and what a train and what memories it holds for people of all walks of life that have used it over the years. I used to go up and down on it regularly - knew every steward on the train, used to shake and rattle through vegetable soup in the fading grandeur of the first class dining room while the ancient fans rotated with ponderous dignity above and the Train Captain dspensed good cheer to tourists many of whom wound up with vegetable soups in their laps.


Will said...

Ed - Nice post & your description of the Likoni Ferry had me laughing
out loud: those poor hapless passengers a-wailing as they drift out to see.
Aren't we all like them? Perhaps it should be a nervous titter instead?
Certainly your analysis of what Onyango's 'mean' is spot on -indeed vehicles of life & death in the immensity of the African landscape. And the train -so UNLIKELY -an alien - & his veery smart looking train looks just that!

Ed Cross said...

Thanks Will. It's fascinating isn't it, by the way the Titanic left from Southampton not Liverpool - luckily one can correct ones postings. The story of Onyango rescuing a giant earth mover from his childhood recently , buying it at tender, restoring it in the bush, finding its original and astonished driver from a nearby village - getting it going again with the now 80 year old driver at the wheel - he has filmed all this and we will show it soon I hope at his forthcoming show in Portugal and elsewhere.