Elijah Ooko paints pictures of animals. Wild ones to be precise. And yet, his subjects – be they lions, cheetahs or zebras – all look terribly tame, as if Ooko invited them for a sitting so he could paint their portraits in a way similar to how 18th artists painted portraits of the rich and famous.
One big difference between then and now, of course, is the fact that Ooko paints portraits of wildlife which he humanises while those earlier artists, painters like El Greco (whose life was depicted recently during the 24th EU Film Festival), Joshua Reynolds (whose George Washington can be seen on US dollar bills) and Velasquez mostly painted the upper class whose social status was cemented for all time in those portraits.
The other difference between Ooko’s portraits and the classics is that his are mostly drawn within a scenic setting that looks similar to his homeland of Siaya in Nyanza where the land is dry, hilly and sparsely scattered with trees and shrubs.
Ironically, Ooko never saw any of those wild creatures near his home village of K’Ogelo, apart from wild monkeys and guinea fowl.
He grew up drawing domestic creatures that frequented his family homestead, animals like cows, goats and dogs as well as chicken, donkeys and cats.
“I used to draw them using my finger to draw in the soil,” said Ooko during the opening of his first one man exhibition at Sankara Hotel in Westlands.
True, he had art classes in primary school but he actually learned animals’ anatomical structures while doing his on-site studies as a child.
Trained in the art of welding, Ooko mainly fabricated doors, windows and wrought iron gates.
But unlike jua kali welders like Bertiers Mbatia who never studied welding in school yet used that new-found skill to create life-sized sculptures, Ooko never thought of applying his vocational training to the plastic arts.
Instead, when work dried up in Siaya, he shifted to Nairobi in the late 1980s and went to stay with his sister in Langata and quickly found work in Industrial Area where he helped fabricate country buses.
After a while, even that work ran dry, so Ooko decided to assist his sister at her dress shop where she sold mainly mitumba clothes.
It was out of boredom, sitting idly at her shop that he began again to draw all those creatures from his childhood days.
It was his sister who encouraged him to go visit the Lang’ata Animal Orphanage which was just next door to where they lived.
That was a major turning point for Ooko since he’d never seen wildlife like what he found at the orphanage.
There, he found lions, zebra, cheetah and buffalos as well as hyena and leopard which had all been brought to the place for healing after having been found injured out in the game parks.
The rest is history in the sense that Ooko began painting the animals he’d finally seen first-hand at the orphanage.
“It wasn’t difficult since I already understood their anatomical structures,” he says, indicating that there wasn’t that much difference between domestic creatures and wild ones.
“For me, cows became buffalos, goats were turned into gazelles, donkeys became zebra and even dogs were turned into lions,” says Ooko who initially went from drawing to painting in water colours.
“I got all my materials from the supermarket – the manila papers, water colour paints and even the brushes came from there,” he adds.
His first sales took place in his sister’s shop where her clients were among the first to admire and buy his art.
“I’d seen tubes of oil paints at the store, but I had to wait until I could afford them,” he says.
It was around that time that someone suggested he head off to the African Heritage Art Gallery but there he was directed to Gallery Watatu where the late Ruth Schaffner instantly saw Ooko’s immense talent and bought all of his artwork.
From 1991 when they first met until her death in 1996, Ruth organised a whole series of group shows including Ooko with artists like Jak Katarikawe, Sane Wadu, Wanyu Brush, Kivutha Mbuno and Joel Oswaggo.
After Ruth died, Ooko was on his own until RaMoMa Museum was established in 2000. Then after RaMoMa died in 2010, he went with Carol Lees of One Off Gallery.
She’s the curator who got him his first one-man show at Sankara which will run for the next two months.