Florence Wangui came onto the Kenyan contemporary art scene like a bright, shiny comet in 2014 after joining the GoDown Art Centre the previous year and taking part in one of its group exhibitions.
Distinctive for her delicate charcoal drawings of chickens, each with its own apparent attitude and personality, Florence was soon invited by Carol Lees to become one of the One Off Gallery artists.
But then, in another flash, she seems to disappear. It was months later that we learned Florence was doing something in a church. Little did we know that she’d accepted a job to work on a major project at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho.
A Scottish glass artist John Kenneth Clark had seen one of her drawings in a Muthaiga Club show and followed up since he needed to find a local who was an excellent draughtsman.
Stations of cross
Not only that, she or he had to be prepared to spend a good chunk of time outside Nairobi, collaborating with him on creating several series of glass or bronze relief sculpted panels for the cathedral.
Florence had been recommended highly by Carol; her primary task was to be drawing the designs for The 14 Stations of the Cross and The Mysteries of Christ. When she met John at One Off Gallery, she accepted the challenge.
“I just wanted to learn,” Florence told BDLife at the opening of her ongoing solo exhibition at One Off gallery, cryptically entitled ‘‘Denial.’’
What she didn’t know at the time was how extensive the learning process would be and how John was prepared to involve her in the complex process of creating all of the glass and bronze panels. “Florence has essentially been attending an advanced course in fine art,” said Carol, who from the start had faith that the 26-year-old artist was capable of performing the job, even though her academic background had never been in fine art.
Florence had studied zoological sciences at Kenyatta University, but she’d been drawing (and living with) chickens virtually all her life.
The number of new skills, materials and artistic techniques that she learned in the process of creating bronze relief panels for the cathedral’s front doors and glass-sculpted panels for both the interior and exterior is incredible.
Some of the fruits of that creative learning process are currently on display at One Off Gallery in Florence’s second solo exhibition. The first was in 2014.
She’s got a few charcoal drawings in the show; but most of it is a series of sculpted relief plaster ‘paintings’ and several glass pieces, including one that would have been in the Cathedral, but somehow it got one small crack.
Jesus on glass
Still the three dimensional portrait of Jesus in sculpted glass being taking down from the cross is most moving and beautiful.
Several other coloured glass works are portraits of her beloved chicken, an image that takes on symbolic significance in her ‘Denial’ series where it’s the cock that’s present to rouse the man who she describes as ‘in denial’ of certain things that he needs to ‘come clean’ about before he can be truly free.
Florence doesn’t elaborate on which men are the ones needing to be honest with themselves. But what’s clear in both her charcoal on paper drawings and her sculpted relief plaster paintings is that the cock is almost like a Christ character who challenged prospective followers to “know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Otherwise, there is little in her exhibition that exposes us to the remarkable work that she and John have completed thus far.
She does have two lovely Renaissance-styled sculpted plaster paintings, one of the Last Supper, the other of Jesus at Cana turning water into wine, both of which clearly reveal why John felt good about mentoring this talented artist who mastered his lessons more quickly than he’d thought imaginable.
The one item in the exhibition that offers the clearest idea of the hard work that both Florence and John put in to creating the 14 Stations of the Cross and 10 ‘Mysteries’ is a video that John made and which breaks down this complex process into steps that even laymen can appreciate.