Even before Peter Walala won first prize at this year’s Manjano art competition at Village Market, Anthony Okello had invited his younger brother to showcase some of his art alongside, or rather together with his at the exhibition which opened last Sunday at One Off Gallery.
The collaboration would involve Walala’s award-winning stitched-label collages serving as a unique kind of ‘canvas’ on which Okello would then paint whatever he pleased.
It was one of Walala’s innovative scrap-cloth collages that had won him the top Manjano prize. His idea of using mitumba (second-hand) clothing labels as an art medium was unprecedented. And the fact that they were meticulously stitched together in intricate designs (irrespective of whether they came from Hong Kong, Guatemala, China or Vietnam), made Walala’s finished collages all the more unique.
But what makes the brothers’ collaborative art even more exciting to see is that Okello uses seven of Walala’s collages as stretched canvases on which he paints enchanting works of both abstract and semi-abstract art.
Well worth seeing
The most striking ‘collabo’ in my view (and the first one to sell at their show) was a regal-looking woman who’s bedecked with a fabulous head dress seated in front of a bright, boldly coloured background.
In fact, Okello’s wide-ranging use of colour is one of the key reasons the current One Off show is well worth going to see.
For instance, he has a series of portraits of The Mrs in which none of the ladies is either white or black or even brown. The Mrs III is a pale grey with one red and one purple eye and an oceanic blue set of lips.
The Mrs IV has an almost translucent face with flame-red hair, green lips and matching green eyelids with beady blue eyes that match the colour of her top.
And the original Mrs looks pink although her facial features resemble those of an African while her head dress and turtle-neck shirt are seaweed green.
Okello seems to use colour to make fun of the way people’s racial prejudices centre round skin tones, despite the fact that we are all humans.
The other painting that seems to reinforce that view (about his use of rainbow hues to mock racial prejudice) is Incognito which he fills with faces that range in colour from blue, green and purple to red, pink and shades of tan.
When I asked the artist who was the one traveling incognito in the painting, he pointed to their eyes and said they were all doing so.
The one painting that assures me that Okello used his colour palette to have fun with his art is cryptically called Caught In the Act. It’s quite a large painting which is practically the first one you see as you step inside the gallery.
And because the walls of the gallery are as pearly white as the edges of the painting, the work looks more like a giant mural featuring three acrobatic divers separated by a ladder-like grid from two elegantly dressed and coiffed women.
The painting has an almost surrealistic effect, given the divers might as easily be body-beautiful gymnasts showing off their alluring torsos to their adoring sweethearts.
Either way, the work has a number of quirky features, especially the fact that all five characters seem suspended in thin air.
Okello’s art isn’t particularly political. Nonetheless, he admits his pot-bellied, balding Master of Ceremony might have something in common with several Kenyan politicians.
But probably the most powerful painting in the show is Okello’s Son of Man in Torment. It’s a problematic piece that’s suffused with electrifying energy, the sort that’s at the core of tornados and hurricanes.
My first impression of the work was that it’s apocalyptic since the bottom left-hand corner appears to contain a city situated far below which looks like it’s been blown apart.
Yet far above that city, on the main stage of the painting, there seems to be almost a celestial war going on, although one can’t be sure of what’s happening since this celestial storm seems heavy-laden with naked women (or are they Okello’s idea of angels?) who seem to be paying homage to what looks like the spirit of the storm.
Needless to say, Son of Man in Torment is one if not the most powerful work in the exhibition. It’s also one of the most important paintings that Okello has produced since he created his mural-sized trilogy based on Luo mythology.
On a sadder note, one of our most beloved Kibera-based artists, Ashif Malamba, a longstanding member of the arts-collective Maasai Mbili, passed away on the weekend and shall be sorely missed by friends, family and art-lovers who appreciate his whimsical, sign-writing style of painting.