Despite having taken part in one Kenya Museum Society “Affordable Art” exhibition and one Manjano art competition since leaving Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art back in 2012, the name Samuel Githinji Ashanti didn’t ring a bell when I heard he was having his first solo show at Red Hill Gallery.
But even before I trekked up Limuru Road to Hellmuth and Erica Rossler-Musch’s glass-floored gallery, I knew there had to be something special about this so-called “emerging” artist whose show opened late last year and runs through mid-January.
What was curious, however, is that Hellmuth had been one of the three judges at the 2015 Manjano art competition, yet Githinji hadn’t been named among the winners; nonetheless, the retired German chemist-turned curator must have been sufficiently impressed with the young artist to give him his first solo show.
Up until now, the Rossler-Muschs have primarily exhibited well-established east African artists like Gor Soudan, Justus Kyalo, El Tayeb Dawelwait, Abushariaa and the late Geoffrey Masaka.
It’s true that in recent times, Hellmuth has branched out quite a bit, holding shows for rising stars like William Wambugu, Michael Wafula, Peter Walala and Evanson Kangethe, among others. But rarely have we seen him follow his artistic intuition so fully as with the choice of Githinji.
So what special something was it that the Rosslers had seen in his art?
The answer was quickly apparent once I walked inside their gallery. Githinji’s art isn’t beautiful or picturesque. But it is emotionally explosive and has a sort of “shock and awe” sensibility that reflects a gutsy aura of tragedy and horror combined with earthy outrage.
What’s more, the paintings have an emotional transparency rarely displayed by regional artists who apparently haven’t reached a point where they are prepared to spill their guts onto canvas as Githinji seems to do.
The one exception among Kenyan artists is Ehoodi Kichapa who conveys a similar sense of angst in his art, and who has often been compared to the late Francophone painter Basquiat whose art is also known for its despair and disillusionment.
In nearly all the 20 paintings in his solo show, Githinji’s art also echoes the mood of the 19th century Norwegian artist Edvard Munch whose iconic painting “The Scream” has become emblematic of the despair, dread and disaster that characterised much of the 20th century.
In fact, Githinji’s art could easily be given a similar status in our 21st century since there seems to be a silent majority worldwide which feels desperate and trapped in their personal circumstances – be it poverty, injustice, impunity or hopelessness.
Most of his works are painted with bold, broad brush strokes in primary colors – blood reds, midnight blues and jet black.
And while the show is entitled “Self-Portrayals”, there is very little that one can describe as figurative or realistic. Instead, Githinji’s art is definitely semi-abstract, expressionist and even surreal.
One mostly sees abstracted faces in his paintings, often drawn loosely and sometimes buried beneath those primary colours, as if the painter is trapped in his own psyche and personal despair.
But there also seems to be a running dialogue between the artist and a society that’s steeped in callous corruption of the human spirit.
“His art conveys the zeitgeist [or spirit] of our time,” remarked Dr Dana Seidenberg, who was also attending the Red Hill show.
At the same time, Githinji’s works seems to afford him one way to escape from his angst. For out of the extreme discomfort that his work reflects, the paintings seem to serve as a platform on which he conducts psyche battles with a world that would snuff out his life spirit if he didn’t resist with his paints, pastel crayons and hand-written pencil complaints.
Two of the self-portraits are especially noteworthy since they seem to suggest there was a moment when Githinji’s approach to painting took a radical turn. The earlier one is the only semi-realistic work in the show; it’s one that seems to reveal the artist’s dawning disillusionment with the world.
The other one totally drops any semblance of realism; instead it explodes with deep blue and blood red emotions that foreshadow the mood of most of the other works.
There’s one anomalous self-portrait that seems to suggest a shadow of a smile and a hot-wired molten mood coming to light. It’s a painting that could signal something else happening in Githinji’s art.
But we’ll need to wait for his next show to see where this promising young painter is heading.