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Monday, August 23, 2010

Brushes with Memory

Curating an exhibition in a place away from your regular abode is an experience I am familiar with but one that never fails to excite me. In many ways it is the perfect way to experience a place as you encounter both local people and other visitors in the space that you have staked out.

Witness: the spectre of memory in contemporary African art is my current exhibition here staged by Ed Cross Fine Art Ltd in the beautiful city of Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival. The show is at the English Speaking Union’s pleasant little gallery at 23 Atholl Crescent – in a lovely 18th century part of the city not far from Princes St. It features five artists – from four African countries: Soly Cisse from Senegal, Lovemore Kambudzi from Zimbabwe, Peterson Kamwathi from Kenya, Richard Onyango also from Kenya, and Dominique Zinkpe from The Republic of Benin. These are all artists I have dealings with – I have selected them because I love their work.

In this large and highly ambitious reduction Woodcut queuing figures from the abortive 2008 Kenyan elections can be made out amid a mass of ballot boxes.

Memory is the theme of the exhibition – its presence is felt in all acts of creation – but I am interested by the specific roles it plays with the five artists represented and here I will write about three of them. Both Peterson Kamwathi and Lovemore Kambudzi have consciously or otherwise assumed the role of guardians of memories for their respective countries Kenya and Zimbabwe. Kamwathi with his thoughtful, beautifully executed and focussed work. Each marking aspirations, disappointments and travesties of justice. His work grounded in his country but expanding out in to the wider world and referring back to the past almost as if he is painstakingly assembling a language with which to explain what it is to be a human or indeed an animal,

in this world of ours which worships at the alter of systems of leverage that deliver power and or wealth to the few usually at the expense of the many. Where corporate, individual or national greed are ever present and the sins of many a father apparent if one looks deep enough. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance – there is vigilance in Kamwathi’s work that would be dogged if it were not beautiful. Existing behind the unflinching record of human failings is a strong belief in the soul, a kernel within humanity in Africa or anywhere on earth, that must be protected, nourished and celebrated.

Lovemore Kambudzi from Harare works from memory and his own sketches – he paints what he sees going on around him – the good, the bad and the ugly, in most cases applying one colour at a time across often large canvasses. In 2008 during one of the lowest points in Zimbabwe’s recent history when water supplies failed, Cholera stalked the country and political oppression was particularly brutal, I suggested that he and his family come to Kenya to take shelter for a while – a few days later the message came from his wife – “Lovemore wouldn’t know what to paint in Kenya – there are some extraordinary things going on– he can’t leave now - he has to keep painting what’s happening”. Kambudzi has only one subject – the living breathing stumbling, tragic but often smiling, Zimbabwe. It’s a circus that he cannot miss – he must not only witness but record – and his recording is detailed and intense - the expressions on the numerous characters that pepper his works are very specific and acutely observed - even the extras in his “cast of thousands” works are individuals, often betraying their emotions through a hunch of the shoulders or the tilt of a hip.

No one would describe Richard Onyango as a political artist, yet whilst his subject matter – mostly his own life both real and imagined, is completely at odds with that of Kamwathi and Kambudzi; his work too, is profoundly informed by politics and social phenomenon. Like Kamwathi, Onyango is driven by a vision of a just Africa. Where people are able to play their part in society and live in dignity. In Onyango’s case it is an extravagant, unfettered Utopian vision. It is a world where very overweight women of all colour (and presumably men too?) can defy gravity and pole-vault majestically through the air or belt round athletics tracks in record time.

It is a place where people are accorded proper respect regardless of their colour or body type – where women are as powerful as men and more than capable of defending themselves if needs be#

(note the pistol on his late girlfriend Drosie’s belt and the sword on his new fantasy lover, Deborah Teighler once dubbed “the fattest woman in America”). It is an anti-obsolescence world where machinery, engineering and vehicles are revered and well maintained in to old age. It is also a place where people are aware that “dreaming” is a creative process – for Onyango believes that people get what they look for in life. You could say the artist is living proof of his belief in the power of the mind as it was his decision as a child to remember everything he saw (in the absence of a camera) that he attributes to his “photographic memory” and the ability to recall childhood scenes with a high degree of accuracy. Others might attribute it to a variety of autism (is this merely a neurotic and tedious need for labels?) but his clear recollection of his own decision to “record what he was interested in” is compelling.

Have a look at the catalogue of the exhibition...

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