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Friday, December 4, 2009

Richard Onyango

I came across this piece by David Kaiza who writes about African art superbly and with inspiration. It appeared originally on the site.

I have several of Richard's works for sale in London, one of them is in my current show SEVEN ARTISTS ONE CONTINENT. I plan at some point to put on a solo show for him here.
Image courtesy of www.African

The Life And Times Of Richard Onyango

A book by Richard Onyango

Reviewed by David Kaiza

The Life and times of Richard Onyango

“It was nearly midnight when I saw her. A woman wearing a cream dress and shoes. She had a unique figure 8 – because she was very big and strong – and she looked at me…she had very fierce eyes. Wow, I said to myself, who is this? She was smiling at me and admiring me so I added some more beats just to make her happy. Then she stood and came towards the stage…”

So Drosie enters Richard Onyango’s life, to be endlessly reproduced in his art, years after her death; her size, her presence and the mystery of her. She enters his life, and through it, into our consciousness.

In this pocket book, the first on the enigmatic Kenyan painter’s life, we wait, almost morbidly, for the first mention of Drosie. This does not come until page 19, but given only as notice, presenting the music-band atmosphere in which he met her. From there, the narrative veers briefly to the circumstance of poverty, drugs, and the twin makings of Onyango’s life - music and art. It is a mere page and a half that separates the notice to the revelation. But your heart beats in the half minute it takes to meet Drosie…

As it were, she is introduced through drum rolls and colour and never leaves even when the book ends.

As if anticipating the questions in the reader’s mind, Onyango introduces her in full – all of that heft, those eyes, that energy and the inscrutable presence that we have now come to wonder at.

‘Wonder at’ is a statement too early. First, his work seers into the consciousness, outrages, intrigues and finally defeats the mind. Acceptance comes much later, and for many, what remains is wonder – whether as admiration or simply wondering (with disturbed questions) what it is all about.

The first time I saw his work, a few years back when it was profiled in The EastAfrican newspaper, I barely read the article for it had elements of what in this region (and beyond) is referred to as ‘naïve’ art – an excretive which is a sad product of colonial/racial history. It was not until 2008 after I had come to Kenya and started coming to terms with its art (mercifully ‘naïve’ is now on the periphery) and understood its circumstances that I again met Onyango’s work.

“Met” does not give it full vent; rather, it met me as no doubt it does all who see it. Onyango’s art forces its way into your consciousness in a way which is probably unfair. Like a mortal insult, an accident or holiday of a lifetime, it stays with you. The sheer mass of Drosie at first seems like a morbid attraction; all that flesh and folds, as if the artist had gone out of his mind and was just trying to shock or in some drug-ridden mood were letting a disgusting, erotic fantasy run loose. Who would want to put a picture like that up unless they too were in a similar frame of mind, after all it begs the question – what is art?

Yet they can’t all be mad. It is after hearing the story of it that one feels guilty about the initial reaction. It is also the fact that the artist has real talent that keeps one going. Like a book that changes the way a reader expects a book to be – a first encounter with magic realism for instance – the disturbance gives way to attentiveness and the beginnings of engagement. But the entry is not easy.

Later you see things from the artist’s perspective, and thence, to begin considering what precisely it is all about. It is a very serious matter, for the artist operates beyond inhibitions, going right to the centre of how art and life have been shaped in this region.

Kwani? founding editor, Binyavanga Wainaina approached Richard Onyango and suggested he write his story. The Life and Times of Richard Onyango is the result. It is a pocket book, only 64 pages and can be read within the hour.

Perhaps it’s a good judgment that it be a booklet for now and mercifully, does not give away the whole story, only giving brief overviews, which for now, remove some of the questions about whether this is art at all.

In it we follow Onyango’s childhood, his family moving over from Western Kenya to the coast. It was not really a life of struggle, and what hardship the young man faced came from choice. His decision to leave home was not dramatic, just renting a house so he could be closer to school.

It was in the routine of waiting for money his father sent him by bus that he started drawing buses. It was Tana River Bus which he first painted and was an instant star with it and the mesmerized company director ordered he travel free - for life. It was not the only ecstatic bus company that would give him this privilege. Not that he really needs it. Fame has brought him a measure of success and among other things, this book tells us Onyango owns 11 Landrovers and has acquired a crane. Whatever for!

Playing the Band by Richard Onyango

The manner in which Drosie practically pulled him off stage into her life, to only keep him as an appendage to her life, has to be read. Onyango does not tell us if there was any intimacy between the two of them although there should have been a lot of it. “Oh Richard, you met a mzungu so you abandoned us,” his band members chide him. Onyango does not tell us about the months that have passed between the time he left the band and attempted running away from Drosie.

Later there would be encounters with Drosie’s parents and the racial tension therein. These tensions are not just between black and white. The black waiters and gatekeepers in the exclusive coastal resorts frown on him showing up. It is the unbelievable, refractive racism that still goes on and which we feel on the wings of Onyango’s paintings.

The harrowing narrative of Drosie’s death comes as something of a shock to someone used to seeing her as a picture model. She is human! In a way, this book is also about the life of Dr. Suzy - Drosie a nickname given her by her mother. In this way, the book remains unfinished, as indeed, Drosie’s presence in Onyango’s life and work.

No one paints like Onyango and by the looks of it, he will remain inimitable. Drosie paintings are still coming. Not one-offs, they are a continuous narrative, like a 19th century novel published piecemeal in periodicals, you want the next installment.

As narrative, his story contains many narrative elements: personal/cultural encounter, soliloquy, biography, colour and landscapes and a lot more.

Hence, they can be interpreted over and over, from all angles – gender, race, history, anthropology, erotica. Is it the emasculation of man in the age of gender equality?

Who is Drosie?

Had she not existed in fact, we might have thought Onyango made her up. Is she embodiment of how our world is divided into a West inordinately powerful, driving, encircling, domineering and too wealthy for its own health? Or is Onyango suggesting that this wealth and power is to the detriment of the West as well as everybody else?

As art, what’s in it – magic-realism, realism, surrealism or just naïve art given rhetorical vent?

He uses symbols extensively, whether they are a bedstead as a spider’s web, a drooping fan in a corner or the wall plaque “I Love Africa”, they all say something, fittingly, seeming to be ordinary appurtenances of daily life, pointing out the lively interweaving of meaning in things we don’t take a second look at.

Art writer, Katrin Bettina Müller says Onyango’s work is a “…parody (of) colonialists´ views, fears and longings. With the figure of Souzy (sic) Drosie, a voluminous English lady, he creates scenes reflecting ironically on the new and uncertain status of the artist,” going to say that his work “…suggest(s) that the luxury of patronising art and artists is part of an extravagant life-style. Art as a ladder to social success presupposes Western conditions. Richard Onyango is pointing out bitterly that market-dependent art is part of a post-colonial heritage. He has also found a formula for the ambivalence of his new identity.”

So many things happen simultaneously in Richard Onyango’s art that each time you come to it, you see something different. In time, it will probably be unaffordable.

Drosie was his girlfriend. Drosie has become his symbol, suggesting that the apparent force of her says less about the real relationship, for Onyango saw and thought about everything.

Yet at the same time, it is not always possible to like Richard Onyango’s work. I sometimes feel outraged by it. I don’t know if it is the kind of work you can like. An essential strain, almost necessary that emerges from Onyango demands that you engage it with the mind rather than the heart, yet it does not crowd out the heart.

At the bottom of the outrage, nags the question about how much a man can put up with, not just because 300 pounds is slammed over him, but because circumstances just keep coming at him. His ability to remain steady through it all probably says something of how much substance Onyango’s got in store.

The fact which ought to stay at the very top is that this man is hugely talented. His colours, his composition and sense of proportion are winning. He is an artist and this fact rounds back to the beginning, to redeem and to re-affirm what first hits you. His talent not only forgives the outrage, but lifts it up from conventional indignation to a height where we see Onyango, not as cultural aberrant but as questioner, a painter of big canvas on which everything appearing, everything is laid on the table.

His talent is clearly present in the book for the people who saw his art, whether the bus company director or the Italian collectors, understood they were in the presence of a real thing.