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Peter Ngugi: From used cars, shoes salesman to top Kenyan artist

Left, a multimedia work by Peter Ngugi (Inset
Left, a multimedia work by Peter Ngugi (Inset right). Ngugi’s mixed media paintings make a powerful statement about the way corrupt politicians have misused their power and caused mayhem in Kenyan society. PHOTOS | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

As one of the five Kenyan artists who had the good fortune of being part of the first Lamu Art Residency organised by the German philanthropist Herbert Menzer, Peter Ngugi had never been to Lamu before.

When he was dealing in second-hand car sales, he’d been to Mombasa many times. And when he was selling second-hand shoes, he’d even got as far north as Malindi.

But Lamu, especially Shela village where he and the rest of the Kenyan artists stayed for three weeks in November, was something new and special for Ngugi.

Nonetheless, the paintings he produced during his time on the island were similar in a sense to ones he’d been creating since early 2013 when his ‘Pigs of Thika Town’ exhibition at One Off Gallery revealed a political undercurrent in his painting that hadn’t been so apparent before.

In fact, the former shoe salesman has always been a keen observer of Kenyan politics.

But it was only after he discovered he could make a living while doing what he loved best in life (namely, painting) that Ngugi now had a means of expressing his personal views and feelings through his art.

‘Pigs of Thika Town’ constituted a subtle series of symbolic works that portrayed the likes of Kenyan politicians. Yet none of the portraits were realistic. They were beautiful however as Ngugi nestled his feelings behind hieroglyphic-like columns and characters.

“That was the first time I painted a series of works around a specific topic,” said Ngugi who was putting last-minute touches on his latest series, produced while working in his sunny Lamu studio.

“Since then, I’ve created several series about issues that disturb me,” he said. “Like alcoholism and militarism.”

He worries about the way Kenyans in rural areas are drinking and dying like flies, so he’s done a series of deceptively beautiful sculptures that reflect that concern.

In his most recent exhibition at One Off, Ngugi’s artistic angst is expressed in a series of multimedia works that reflect on the heightened militarism that has taken hold of East Africa.

Symbolised in the shape of AK-47s that are filled in with colourful kitenge cloth, Ngugi’s mixed media paintings make a powerful statement about the way corrupt politicians have misused their power and caused mayhem in Kenyan society.

The current series that came out of his Shela residency is called ‘Empty Boats’ which again reflects one of the biggest social problems plaguing the people of Lamu island, which is the curfew and its ensuing consequences.

“You see the best time for fishing in Lamu is at night, but due to the curfew, the local fishermen can’t go out in their boats after dark as they have done for centuries,” said Herbert Menzer who feels just as saddened by the fishermen’s dilemma as Ngugi does.

But where Herbert is an excellent spokesman for Lamu, especially as he invites creative artists from abroad to come discover the beauty of the island during the bi-annual Lamu Painters Festival, Ngugi speaks more effectively through his art.

His ‘Empty Boats’ series will be on display at One Off Gallery from January 26, together with works produced by the other four artists who went to Lamu with Herbert, namely Peter Elungat, Chelenge Van Rampelberg, Timothy Brooke and Sophie Walbeoffe.

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