The art of Ehoodi Kichapi (a.k.a. Jesse Ng’ang’a) is definitely an acquired taste, but he’s the sort of painter who’s not to be ignored.
An abstract expressionist and ebullient colourist, Kichapi’s paintings are so obviously influenced by the acclaimed American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that one is compelled to do a double-take when initially encountering his current crop of artworks on show at OneOff Gallery in Rosslyn.
In fact, there are definite correlations between the Kenyan and Black American artist: Both are self-taught, impulsive, intuitive and artistically innovative.
At the same time, their work shares a similar streetwise sensibility that picks up on the energies and atmospherics in which they live, so that the art of Basquiat, a savvy New Yorker, conveys that city’s colourful cacaphony and crazy, incoherent energy that makes urbanites either love or despise New York.
Meanwhile, Kichapi is an Eastlander from Nairobi who grew up making trouble by drawing cartoonish caricatures of his teachers, only to become a teacher of wily street kids himself, at Kuruka Maisha inside The GoDown Art Centre.
His art also has a cacaphonic character to it, as he clearly delights in splashing clashing colours on canvas and arbitrarily anointing his paintings with oblique lettering and lines that are rarely straight, except when they are used to ‘x’ out a word or number as he does in a painting like ‘Registration’.
But unlike some abstract artists who don’t want to give away ‘secrets’ about the meaning of their art, Kichapi is willing to decipher much of the coding that his artwork contains.
For instance, he says the numbers that are x-ed out in ‘Registration’ refer to the number plates of matatus which have left a specific stage in an orderly style.
Who would have guessed?
But he says his art is intentionally oblique because he wants to cut short viewers’ quest for a meaning that might be eked out of a naturalistic image of a written word or realistic representation of any kind.
He prefers to get people thinking with his art so they can overcome the inclination to fall back on easy answers.
“Human beings tend to think they are in control, but life is not to be controlled,” he said. “My art is all about letting things happen and illustrating that life is a process of creating and destroying.”
One important theme has to do with what he calls herbal healing. Whether the herb is aloe or hibiscus, it’s “indigenous medication” that he’s recommending as a means of curing society of its multiple ills.
So while his art may look like child’s play, filled with doodles and strokes that seem to have no apparent pattern or purpose, still the artist has serious concerns, which is why his show is entitled “Lamentations”.
“I’m lamenting the dismal condition of our society,” said Kichapi who is also prescribing a healing cure in a return to all good things indigenous.
Admitting that his art has become more positive since he followed his passion and flew to Bamako in Mali recently, Kichapi said his quest had been to find his favourite kora player, Toumani Diabate, who he considers the finest in the world.
For him, it was life-transforming to actually find Diabate, he spent the next two months staying in his home and rehearsing everyday alongside a man who was mentored by “the master of African blues - Ali Farka Toure.
Kichapi hopes to one day get Diabate and his 18-man orchestra to Kenya so they can run workshops for Kenyan musicians, as part of a larger project he’s working on called “Bridge over the Nile and the Niger.”
So while Kichapi may seem to be a man who mainly emulates the art of Jean Michel Basquiat, others see him as more of a Kenyan Picasso.
That’s because while Picasso also had detractors who believed him to be a hustler and charlatan who was taking the global art world for a ride, while others saw him as a genius who was truly innovative and inspired.
He won the Ruth Wood Hunt scholarship to study art at the University of Kentucky in 2008 for four months.
While in the States, Kichapi (whose artistic name means ‘Artistic beater’ meaning he creates by ‘beating’ his canvas with everything from charcoal and chalk to acrylic paint and pastels) was offered a four-year fine art scholarship which he declined.
He was keen to get back to Kenya where he’s been making art and music at Kuruka Maisha ever since.
His Lamentations will be at OneOff Gallery up to the end of April.