Long before Elaine Kehew became the artist whose exhibition ‘Hand Painted Pop’ opened last Friday night at Village Market, she was a lawyer and rock and roll guitarist. Fortunately, she found her passion in time and started going to her law library job by day and art school at night.
Getting married and moving to Kenya was another transition. It led her into domesticity, lots of shopping and the discovery of a whole new catalogue of consumer items and brand names that she’d never seen before.
“I’d never heard of Cowboy cooking fat or Farasi Kibiriti or even Fanta Orange before we came to Kenya,” said Elaine who admits she’s been fascinated by Kenyan brand names, all of which she sees as part of Kenya’s own popular culture.
But if she’s been intrigued by all of these iconic consumer items, she’s also been inspired by Western pop art, especially by artists like Andy Warhol who was so enamoured with popular brands, including Hollywood celebrities, that he painted everything from Campbell’s soup cans to iconic Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
Warhol was sometimes criticised for taking ordinary consumer items and making them the subjects of his art. It was especially true when he didn’t just paint one soup can or one portrait of Marilyn. He’d paint four!
But that was Warhol’s point. He was painting what seemed obvious and mundane to make it stand out as emblematic of America’s ‘popular consumer culture. Thus, the title of his style of art became known as ‘pop art’.
In a similar way, Elaine has painted what she’s seen to be Kenya’s own contemporary pop culture.
It consists common consumer items, most of which can be found in any local street-corner kiosk. That’s where one can invariably find everything from Big G chewing gum, Kimbo cooking fat, Kenyan canned vegetables and assorted brands of wooden or wax matches.
The public might not see anything special about her ‘portrait’ of Big G, except maybe if one remembers blowing bubbles with the popular gum as a child (or you chewed khat). But for Elaine, the gum inspired her to paint a diptych, one portion of which contains a full-size stick of the chewing gum; the other enlivened with three children all having fun blowing bubbles with it.
She further proves her point about ‘pop’ culture with several omnipresent items which she paints in clusters.
For instance, she created nine versions of Kenyan cans, each one in a painting containing a can labelled with a different bean, vegetable, or githeri mix.
“I’m hoping someone will want all nine (cans), since they’re really meant to be together,” said Elaine who confessed she wouldn’t mind if the cans went as solo works or even as three sets of triptychs.
Guns and butter
That’s also the case with her ‘kibiriti’ clusters. Each of the match boxes (painted 3D wooden ‘sculptures’) has its own original title and logo. But altogether they reflect a Kenyan consciousness of the need to create a unique brand that can stand out in contrast to all the rest.
How else can one explain the ingenuity of calling one box Flora, while others are named Kuku, Farasi, Happy, Kifaru and Leopard?
Yet Elaine’s show isn’t just a commentary on Kenya’s pop culture. Her ‘Dr Dawa’ with his can of Lucky Star sardines looks a bit like a slickster salesman. Her ‘Guns and Butter’ portrait of a blond lady complaining about no butter in the shops appears oblivious of the guided missiles flying overhead. The artist seems to be ironically questioning priorities: valuing guns more than feeding people.
Finally, it’s her bottle of Sprite that’s the most cryptic piece in her show. It discloses her subtle questioning of the Sprite slogan, ‘Obey’, suggesting a feminist challenge to that order.
There are several semi-abstract pieces in Elaine’s show. All have significance to her; but again, it’s open-ended. What is obvious that she can create purely beautiful paintings, like one stained-glass window-like work called ‘Swahili’ and two lovely lilies that have a rationale all their own.