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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.

The 2008 Dakar Biennale in perspective

Not part of the official 2008 Dakar Biennale but but a walking art installation nevertheless - I bought three dolls as modelling fee.

This blog has fallen embarrassingly fallow of late – however this is a new year with new resolutions and on we plough… well where was I? I went to the Dakar Biennale in – when was it – months ago ( – what a city! What a country! The music! The art ! God, I love the music – and I have to detour here on this right away – on the last night I was in Dakar I went to my then newly adopted music haunt – JUST FOR YOU – hardly anyone speaks English in Dakar and so it is quaint that this wonderful venue has a (heavily accented) English name. Now, there you see, it want that difficult to re-start this blog was it Ed? – come on – keep on! They love it! – all that self deprecating twaddle – that diffident banter mixed with penetrating aesthetic revelations. Carlou B performing in London with Youssou N'Dor at Dudu Sarr's launch of Carlou
Back to the music – not the subject of this blog – but never mind. This particular night I had to pay to get in – I was expecting a repeat of the excellent band I had seen there on the same night the previous week but the slightly gruff ticket seller assured me that this band was “Rap”. This trimmed my sails a bit. Calou B was the act and true he had started out as a rapper – or a hip hop poet – and his music all the better for it one suspects - but then has gone on to many other things including writing an opera and incorporating contemporary African sounds with traditional Senagalese instruments and a voice that I rather tritely dubbed a “male African Joan Armatrading”. After the set I went up to meet him and he informed me that his manager Dudu Sarr was due in Nairobi that weekend – I duly met the charming and interesting Dudu who, strangely enough, used to own a contemporary African Art gallery in London until 9/11 somehow knocked him out of the market. Since then Dudu has launched
Carlou B in London with Yousso N’Dor as guest singer– to a rapturous reception and with Peter Gabriel,amongst others, in attendance. Keep an eye out for Carlou B…

Ok, back to visual art. Well the Dakar Biennale is notoriously chaotic and when I asked the organizers for the contacts for Freddy Tsimba , one of the major artists at the show and they googled for the information (and swivelled the flat screen monitor towards me) I began to think that this might be a conspiracy to keep Anglo Saxons out of it leaving smooth French dealers in total control. Well – no it’s not like that. Noone is in control and it’s a lot of fun though it has to be said that this Biennale was considerably scaled down from previous ones – no outside curator in chief, and some of the artist being told they could not bring the pieces they wanted because of financial/logistics considerations. I suspect it’s a classic case of resting on laurels and government underperformance. I met Romuald Hazoume in Porto Novo Benin and he was scathing about it – I thought perhaps a bit too scathing. But many artists have had terrible experiences there – including one that I know of (Mishek Masamvu from Zimbabwe) who is still waiting for the return of his work from about five years ago. Hazoume said one year he told the organizers he was putting on an installation which consisted of him in a fishing boat fishing off the coast of Dakar. Anyway, the president of Senegal opened the Biennale and spoke with considerable passion about things that my inadequate grasp of French suggested were about the central importance of culture in the modern African state – something I couldn’t quite see President Kibaki from Kenya managing. But Hey! this is West Africa, a different ball game. Where the dancers (in Senegal, at any rate) jump like birds and the music is unfailingly brilliant and where jet black skin is rightly coveted. Outdoor pool, Dakar style

Man and beast in perfect harmony, Dakar
For those who know East Africa – I would describe Dakar as a giant Malindi without the Italians. But the place is awash with baguette and croissant – which one can see being pushed down the road in carts of a morning.

And the French Institute, with its sand on the floor of the bar and massive Baobab Tree, art installations in the gardens and constant Jazz – is about the coolest place on earth – hats off to the French. One could never describe the British council as sexy could one? Unless James Bond was in there undercover – neither Gordon Brown, come to that – Blair was our sex symbol – God help us Brits. I digress again. Thatcher? Stop it. Now Cameron… smooth talking Old Etonian – what can I say? Well a friend of mine called him a twatt. Another friend of mine knows him and says he is much to nice to be the PM – nice twatt? Can I be sued for this?

the French Cultural Institute's Bar in Dakar, so much more chic than British Council's reference libraries with their dry descriptions of the University of Hull's student recareation facilities and hefty overseas student fees.

Right. I am months late reporting on the Biennale (help! when is the next one?) and would not have anyway attempted a survey of it – but I will just highlight some of the artists that I met and whose work I loved. Freddy Tsimba whose work is shown beneath….
Detail from Freddy Tsimba's breathtaking installation thatv was on show at Dakar - Freddy plans to produce over a hundred of these ten foot high figures - Dakar organizers had to curtail his plans for a larger installation due to financial constraints last year.

Freddy enjoying the sounds at Just for You - note the trademark Congolese sharp dressing embroidered jacket- atleast as cool as the French Cultural Institue Bar.
is prolific, based Kinshasa and works mostly with spoons and bullets. Ten foot high figures, mostly pregnant women, deformed but in a sort of ruined way so not at all grotesque. Freddy trained at the art school in Kinshasa but then went on to work alongside welding artisans in the city where he perfected his welding skills. The figures themselves are often made of spoons beautifully welded together draped in free hanging suggestions of clothes constructed from bullets. Startling, beautiful and frightening.

James Kokobi from Cote D’ivoire but now based in Germany. Another star of the neglected contemporary African art world. His sculpture installation entitled Darfur was I though one of the best works in the Biennale.

Carved from burnt wood with great sensitivity playing on the notion of , again , ruination, with the figures hollowed out like devastated tree trunks. Beautiful and powerful work. Kokobi also produces wonderful two dimensional work – some of it using coffee as the pigment.

From Dakar I zipped off to Cotonou principally to go and find Gerard Quenum . I had never been to Benin before and expected a sort of scaled down Nigeria. I have not yet made it to Nigeria though it seems that Benin is a vastly more mellow than its neighbour. The old colonial hotel I had selected from my Rough Guide was under renovation and my taxi driver took me to another new hotel (The Acropole) which he assured me would be to my liking, as indeed it was. I set off through the dusty but very peaceful streets to get a sim card the next morning and discovered “Tchif” who was on my list of artists to meet had a studio round the corner. Tchif greeted me in his studio luxuriant in boxer shorts and entourage of hangers on with a computer screen and internet connection in the middle of the floor surrounded by copious art books and magazines featuring his very interesting work. Tchif meanwhile continued working on the floor pushing colour about and revelling in his semi abstract cave painting /google earth work whilst kindly organizing my itineraray for the next few days. Soon we were in Tchifs leather seated four wheel drive mercedes bombing down the road in the usual sea of motorbikes like a big fast fish among minnows.

Smaller work for Tchiff that I have for sale. Tchif at work in his studio a la boxer shorts

Dominique Zinpke and Francis Tchiakpe Tchif are best mates – same age – equally successful. Tchif is the dashing artist with a touch of Bling and Dominique more the woolly liberal – not woolly in his thinking though, at all. It sounds a bit naff to say I have become friends– but –sorry we are now friends. Its one of the perks of my job - one gets to make friends with artists.

Zinpke is prolific and wide ranging in his work ,some would say, to a fault. His paintings are fascinating, extremely intense, precise, Baconesque, almost flow diagram-like explorations of issues from his romantic/sexual life to concepts such as animism which of course dominates Benin culture. I find them fascinating and powerful. This is the work he does alone at home and some say it is his best. His studio is a riot of activity – where he is to be found working on minibus installations with wooden figures festooned in recycled beer can clothes or wooden figures commissioned by the President of Benin but nevertheless containing one of Zinpke’s central themes the reality of big men existing on the backs, or even the heads,of the common man.

I will write soon, I hope, about my meeting with the Romuald Hazoume which was a great honour and extremely interesting.

Gerard Quenum, I saw in the end. Tchiff took me to see him this time with his charming wife at the wheel in her wonderful Benin cloth outfit – Tchiff, chauffered, and lolling in the front seat in his finery– something that no Kenyan man – black or white would normally go for unless they were at death’s door or too drunk to sit upright, but West Africa is different.

Quenum’s studio is on the outskirts of Porto Novo the capital, literally on the edge of the city. His neighbours farming, pigs I seem to remember. Bits of old junk lying around, people scratching a living, and Gerard , whose work had just been in The Financial Times tipped as an up and coming African artist was to be found working on his highly colourful almost childlike canvasses surrounded by his more famous sculptural constructions based mostly on abandoned dolls heads and bodies. Having seen his work in the rarified atmosphere of the October Gallery in London it was interesting seeing it in its natural habitat where the neighbours abandoned scooter or kids toy is either a piece of typical African detritus or, in the hands of a visionary like Quenum, a profound and indeed valuable piece of art. I wondered quite what the neighbours make of him.

Oh and by the way my website is up and running – it’s a start and I hope to expand it greatly in the coming months. Welcome.....

A very Happy New Year to all my very patient readers and if you enjoy reading my work please bully me in to more regular postings – bullying and also any requests for further information about work from the artists I am involved with can be directed to or