Life & Work

Okello in an artistic class of his own


Okello’s Class of 2012 is based on a Taita folk story about Tortoise with ‘orders from above’.

Anthony Okello is a Kenyan visual artist who’s in a class of his own. One can get an inkling of why I make that claim if you pass by OneOff Gallery in Rosslyn where Okello currently has an exhibition of his artworks, the first since moving his studio and home from Kahawa West (where a number of local visual artists stay) to Athi River.

The move itself inspired a major series of paintings (entitled Masquerade), some of which are hanging in The Loft of OneOff, and two of which just fetched 5,000 pounds (or Sh640,000) at the prestigious Bonhams’ African Art Auction in London.

It’s the first time any Kenyan has been invited to participate in the annual art auction, but with support from Circle Art Agency, eight Kenyan artists went this year and all their art sold well, according to CAA’s Danda Jaroljmek.

But as one observer pointed out, the diptych, also entitled Masquerade, may have sold for 5,000 pounds, but neither Okello nor the other seven received a penny for their art.
Yet Okello himself is fine with that arrangement.

‘We all knew in advance that the auction was for charity [the African Arts Trust, founded by multi-millionaire Devereux], so we didn’t expect to receive anything (monetarily) for ourselves,” says Okello who understands that once an artist appears on the Bonhams website, he or she has ‘arrived’ at the front door of the global art world since art patrons from all round the world attend that auction, either in person, by proxy or online.

But there’s no doubt the artist could have used the cash, especially to buy art materials, such as the oil paints he uses in his work. For not only is Okello prolific (currently working on several series of artworks at once.

Each painting has a texture and depth, enhanced with layers of paint which often completely cover massive cotton canvases.

It’s on these massive canvases—two of which are in the OneOff show—that Okello has conceived his most important series of works since he graduated from BIFA (Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art) in 1999.

Based on indigenous cultures and their respective cosmologies, Okello takes up questions raised by the ‘folk’ myths of people, starting with the Taita and the Luo.

Actually, the very first mythological painting that he made (and sold to a British patron, meaning it’s not in Kenya anymore) was based on the Luo legend of Nyamgondho, (the fisherman) which was popularized in comic books (now called graphic novels) by Terry Hirst and the late Frank Odoi.

But as Okello didn’t want to be type cast or sterotyped ‘by tribe’, he’s cast his artistic net across the country and now his mythology series will include myths from other communities starting with the Taita.

The two at OneOff (Class of 2012 and Orders from Above) are based on the Taita ‘folk tale’ about the tortoise who delivers a message ‘from above’ to earth where he is bribed by earthlings to reverse his message, leading to dire consequences.

Painted just before the 2013 elections with heaps of irony and wit, Class of 2012 is clearly meant to mock Kenyan political realities where money tends to flow freely prior to election time.

Orders from Above addresses issues arising from Tortoise’s turning the Message upside down, such that now, man is not supposed to resurrect as the Orders had previously promised. In the painting, Okello explores issues of life, death and resurrection from an intriguing, highly imaginative and symbolic point of view.

The depth of his message and the development of his own unique artistic imagery make both paintings masterpieces in their own right.

I only wish the works could be bought by the National Museums of Kenya for its permanent collection or to a patriotic Kenyan collector so that these two especially don’t leave Kenya as so many of our finest artworks have done.