Life & Work

Painting politics in parables


“The Observers”

James Mbuthia is occasionally mistaken for a mystic since his art often has an ethereal quality to it that is almost from the other world. He often paints Edenic landscapes and lovely colourful fantasies that are vaguely reminiscent of Marc Chagall, only more boldly colourful.

Nonetheless, in his current one-man exhibition at the OneOff Gallery, he comes down to earth and paints the very first artistic chronicle of the just-ended 2012-13 General Election campaigns entitled ‘How I see politics.”

This is not the first time Mbuthia has taken timely topics and interpreted them visually. He did it in 1998 after the tragic event of the ”Bomb blast” when the US Embassy was bombed and more than 200 Kenyans and 12 Americans died.

In his current show, the artist doesn’t just paint a few poignant pictures. He has created more than a dozen artworks which quickly engage the eye, both because of his stunning use of colours and for his pictorial style of storytelling that compels one to inquire: how he ‘sees politics’?

The answer is not obvious since he paints in parables, using cryptic images and titles. All his works are captioned, however, since the artist wants his public to understand why he believes that “all politicians are alike as they all tell untruths and make unrealistic promises.”

Mbuthia’s attitude is conveyed in works such as Shameless (Driven by greed), The Culture of Bribery and Parties (or Grand) Coalition II, none of which would immediately disclose that Mbuthia is describing Kenyan politicians.

The most explicit paintings of the presidential candidates are the two containing big bulls: the first is literally a bullfight of two huge creature entitled Who shall win? And the second is a portrait of a massive white bull entitled And the winner is…..

One of the most elegant paintings in the show, entitled The Land, is a portrait of a woman wearing a broad-rimed hat and behind her is a vast rolling hill filled with fields of well-tended farm land.

He intentionally didn’t identify the woman’s nationality: her skin is a lovely turquoise blue, but again the woman is symbolic of an outsider’s claim to land that isn’t her own.

But not all of Mbuthia’s art is so critical or cynical. His Peace in the Land is a utopian image of what Kenya has the potential to become if it is left to Kenyans. His art aims to alert his audience on the pitfalls of trusting politicians, however smooth they may sound.