Longinos Nagila may well have had his first major art exhibition in Lecce, Italy at the tender age of 22. But long before that, the artist whose solo show entitled ‘Technicians of the Sacred’ opened late last week at The Art Space in Westlands was exposed to incredible fine art right here in Nairobi’s Eastlands when he was just a small boy.
It was in Korogocho estate (a slum renowned for having one of the biggest garbage dumps in Nairobi) that even before he went to pre-primary school, Longinos was seeing artists at his St John’s Catholic Church painting monumental murals of ‘guardian angels’ as well as religious art by local artists like Moses Kabiru.
The angels had been painted by the Chinese American artist Lily Yeh who had come to Kenya in the ‘90s specifically to paint in that church, both to beautify it and to inspire children like Longinos to try painting themselves. Little did she know that one toddler would attribute part of his passion for visual art to her artistic initiative in his estate.
As a child, Longinos had other early influences, like his father’s good friend Charles Bwire who sculpted a life-sized figure of the renowned palaeontologist Louis Leakey in bronze at the Nairobi National Museum.
When the boy first met Bwire at the Museum, he was still in pre-primary and Bwire (who died two years ago) was standing tall atop a ladder leaning on a huge half-finished sculpture that would eventually become the gigantic dinosaur that still stands impressively at the Museum’s front entrance.
Longinos was the only one in his family who followed after his father who used to draw original designs of functional art pieces which he would have made into home furnishings.
“My first art materials were my father’s pencils and A4 papers,” recalls the artist whose mixed media paintings reveal how far his artistic imagination has moved since then.
Those early influences, both in and out of church, can easily be seen in ‘Technicians of the Sacred’, first by the fact that all the figures in his 21 paintings have iconic halos over their heads.
Even the three headless mannequins in the work entitled ‘Three Wise Men’ have halos.
The irony, of course, is that what Longinos sees sardonically as ‘sacred’ is the profane world of high fashion or haute couture which has become like a religion to super-rich elites who can afford to buy expensive designs by big names like Yves St Laurent, Gucci, Prada, Armani and Givenchy among many others.
The artist is clearly fascinated with high fashion, which in a sense is symbolic of the Western world’s wider cultural influence on Africa.
Part of his thought-provoking exhibition is a three-minute video that juxtaposes Western fashion and indigenous African cultural forms. Using a split screen (something he learned while studying film for half a year in Italy in 2013), he creates a stream of contrasting cultural images, such as male fashion models parading on a catwalk partnered with Maasai morans aligned and marching as part of some traditional ceremony.
As his video is brief, he flashes a slew of antithetical images before our eyes; but they all are preceded by a huge exploding mushroom cloud which he told BDLife was rather like the impact that Western culture has had on Africa.
In other words, Longinos (who graduated from Buruburu Institute of Fine Art and the Shang Taw Media School before having his first Italian solo show in 2009) has a lot to say in his current show.
What’s more, he does so using a mixed media approach that is new for him. He experiments, creating his fashion-conscious images using the photo-transfer technique and acrylic paints while blending various textile designs from Baroque to Gucci (representing Western fashion) and from West African to East African leather skins.
His intent, he says, is to challenge the viewer to see the radical contrast between concepts of contemporary Western and traditional African beauty and design. He doesn’t seem to pass judgment but he does reveal what has been lost.
Longinos’ art also contains a subtle comment on past and present concepts of ‘the sacred’ not just with his use of iconic symbols like halos, but even with his alluding to religious themes like the Holy Trinity, which he seems to re-interpret in light of what could be described as fashionable secularism.
This past week, two other outstanding exhibitions opened which will be reviewed next week: ‘The Zebra People: Guardians of the Grevy’s’ by Mia Collis at Nairobi National Museum and ‘Freedom/Flight/Refuge’ at Circle Art Gallery.