Life & Work

Using political satire to pass message

Peter Ngugi has spent most of his life in Thika and witnessed its transformation from small farm town to what he sees today as a booming ‘metropolis’.

But in his current one man exhibition entitled The Pigs of Thika Town, Ngugi sees his burgeoning county as symbolic of the strengths and weaknesses of the country as a whole.

Like a number of Kenyan artists, Ngugi was inspired to paint his immediate concerns and insights associated with the recent general election.

“The works in this show include paintings that I did just before, during and after the election,” said the artist in an exclusive interview with BDLife at OneOff Gallery where his exhibition will be up until May 24th.

Describing his art as metaphorical, Ngugi gives the example of his two paintings about the Fulilia Hotel, in the centre of town and frequented by politicians, most of whom he says make magnificent promises that they rarely keep.

Populating those paintings with chubby pigs neatly replicated and stacked in rows, the two works entitled Blankets of Fulilia Hotel I and II, cleverly conceal the political statement the artist is making.

“The pig stands for vice and the hotel represents the country which sees politicians [like hotel guests] come and go but rarely clean up the mess they leave behind,” says Ngugi.

The blankets represent the filth – call it corruption – that the politicians leave behind.

His attitude towards politicians is best represented in his painting entitled Vote. It’s a portrait of a politician dressed in his best suit and tie, wearing an artificial smile exposing his pearly white teeth.

But the cockroaches creeping out from under his lapel and from behind his collar give a clear indication that filth must be concealed beneath that classy exterior. But it’s the intricate hieroglyphic-like columns that serve as a backdrop to the portrait which, for me, is the painting’s most fascinating feature.

Embedded in all four columns are symbols of both the promises the politician makes while campaigning and the signs representing the candidate himself, namely a chameleon and a snake!

Ngugi’s scathing attitude towards Kenyan politicians is never overt, but his most suggestive painting is entitled Printed Fish. Seated at a table is a man offering a table full of fish to three young men. What’s most curious about the work is the presence of a cat, a pig, a crocodile and a snake.

Again, the artist translates his stunning symbolism.

“The politician is prepared to pay a bribe for these men’s vote, but he also uses intimidation as a form of persuasion. “The cat is meant to symbolise witchcraft, the snake which is actually a belt is also meant to elicit fear and the crocodile [which is ‘made in China’] can’t really hurt a fly, but the pig represents all the vices the politician would use to win the election,” said the self-taught artist who formerly sold second hand cars and mitumba shoes before he turning to art.

The Pigs of Thika Town is not lacking in humour although it helps to have the artist on hand to translate his subtle symbolism and clarify what his metaphors actually mean.

For instance, he has two paintings filled with rows of replicated young men, one where they are enjoying their beer [The Yellow Tie Army], the other [entitled The Green Army] where they’re all blowing vuvuzela horns triumphantly, as if they’ve just won an Olympic medal or a football match.

“Prior to the General Election, the international press assumed that whenever Kenyans were gathered in groups, they were probably planning violence.

But both paintings are meant to illustrate how innocent Kenyans are,” Ngugi said. The ‘yellow tie’ refers to the Tusker label tie, so the men are not plotting sabotage; they are simply enjoying their beer and green being the colour of Gor Mahia’s uniform.

Again Ngugi means to show that winning fans are free to celebrate in Kenya and need not be misinterpreted by the Western media.

When Ngugi is not painting political satire, he can be found illustrating Kenyan folk tales for children’s educational TV shows such as Know Zone and Bus Stories.