Life & Work

Kamwathi’s Sh1m painting graces One Off gallery


Peterson Kamwathi’s untitled painting at One Off gallery going for Sh1.2 million. PHOTO | COURTESY

Much has changed for Peterson Kamwathi since he had his first solo exhibition with One Off Gallery in 2002 and now his second one, entitled ‘‘Constellations and Sediment’’ opened last Saturday.

Even more has changed since Mr Kamwathi submitted his art for the first time to the annual Museum Society Show in 2000 where it got rejected on a technicality: he hadn’t framed the artwork. Since then, he’s not only become one of Kenya’s most high-profile visual artists whose work has been exhibited everywhere from London, New York and Amsterdam to Bern, Umbria, and Washington DC.

Mass migration

He’s also been invited to participate in artist residencies and workshops all the way from the Civitella Ranieri Castle in Italy and Bath Spa University in UK to the Sommerakademie im Zentrum Paul Klee in Switzerland and the Art Omi International Art Centre in New York.

But surprisingly, despite of his international acclaim as well as his local appreciation (evident in the huge turnout at his opening), Mr Kamwathi doesn’t have an inflated ego by any means.

Instead, his focus is on developing his art, especially through research and experimentation both with multiple media and various techniques.

For instance, his current show like many of his previous exhibitions has a subtle social edge (albeit laced in visual poetry and symbolism). His subject matter is focused on mass migration.

But as he says, most of the paintings (such as ‘‘Dirge in Flight’’) are ‘layered’, not only in the sense of the materials used but also in the sense of the meanings which might seem somewhat opaque and elusive.

But even so, the ambiguity of his images allows one to appreciate his art either on an aesthetic or a more intellectual level, or both.

One reason Mr Kamwathi’s art has captured the attention of so many international institutions is because it’s not at all one dimensional. It’s often beautiful, but it’s also infused with multiple meanings. ‘‘Dirge in Flight’’ is a perfect example of his penchant for presenting various perspectives in his paintings.

Using lines, muted hues and actual astrological constellations, he conveys a frozen moment in time when one can see the migrant, seemingly suspended in groundless space, but migrating nonetheless.

Represent void

“My work isn’t meant to make a moral judgment, since I can see people’s various perspectives,” says Mr Kamwathi, referring both to the migrants in motion and to those who wish to keep the migrants out.

Having just returned from an art residency in Miami, Florida, he says he met taxi drivers there, some of whom were for Donald Trump, others who were against him, but all seemed to have valid reasons for their positions.

His art operates in a somewhat similar way. For instance, in one of his untitled paintings in which he worked with layers of spray paints, pastels, pencils and charcoal, the bottom portion is patterned after a star chart containing multiple constellations.

Yet what looks like a large-scale swim team of divers who seem to be flying (or swimming) down into that big blue starry chasm, their destination could represent infinity or a void or simply the unknown, which is essentially where most migrants go.

Concealed drone

So beyond the fascinating forms in his art, his work can’t be fully appreciated unless one grasps both the idea that he’s explaining and its broader, more global context, including the implications millions migrating across the planet as a consequence of either natural disasters or unnatural man-made wars.

Incidentally, in the other untitled mixed media painting, Mr Kamwathi conceals a drone which is situated in one of the lower layers of the work.

On an upper layer, we clearly sees another team of men in transit; yet they also seem to be flying like a large flock of birds (or even a school of fish).

The artist leaves it to our imagination, which interpretation we prefer. But whichever one makes more sense, Mr Kamwathi hopes the essence of his art will speak for itself.

One thing is certain is that the artist has done his homework before developing either a painting or an aquatint etching such as the black and white series of migrant men leaping over huge hurdles, bounding gracefully towards their goal, which is most likely freedom.

Mr Kamwathi’s art is selling from Sh38,000 to Sh1.2 million.

Elsewhere, at Village Market there will be an exhibition opening of Ngecha artists curated by King Dodge Kangoroti, opening Monday September 19.

Finally, Michael Soi’s exhibition of ‘‘The Women in my Life’’ is still on at Circle Art Gallery for another few days.