Peter Ngugi doesn’t call himself a political painter, but the Thika-based artist can’t help creating beautiful semi-abstract art that compels one to ask: what are his paintings about?
Invariably, they are subtle social commentaries on issues of local significance about which he has strong feelings. For instance, in his last solo exhibition at One Off Gallery, it was the problem of alcoholism among jobless young Kenyans that led him to create a colourful and carefully crafted glass sculpture made out of whisky and wine bottles.
And in the show he had following his residency in Shela, his empathy for local fishermen who had been horribly impacted by the government curfew on Lamu County inspired him to create paintings infused with soulful compassion that obliquely told the Coast people’s sad story.
Ngugi’s importance as a visual chronicler of ordinary Kenyans’ everyday lives and their struggles is reinforced in his current exhibition at One Off entitled ‘Tomorrow is Today’.
The title itself is provocative, but once one reads his short text under the brief bio that the gallery’s founder-curator Carol Lees prepared, they can get the gist of how he sees Kenyan society today.
Top-heavy with recycled politicians is one simple way to see the silhouette profiles of men whose heads Ngugi fills with multi-coloured plastic bottle tops and a few expired AA batteries strung together with sharp, thin steel wire.
The implication, of course, is that these men have outlived their usefulness and need to be replaced. Corruption could also be inferred assuming expired batteries can easily corrode.
But Ngugi makes an even more powerful statement with his almost life-size portraits of jobless young men whose posture bespeaks a sense of dejection bordering on despair.
Yet each cluster of three is painted in a bright, beautiful blend of striking colours that only enhance Ngugi’s commentary on the glaring contrasts between corrupt, self-serving political elites and the vast majority, the so-called “leaders of tomorrow” who struggle for daily bread.
Ngugi is clearly not happy with the corruption in the Kenyan society today. There’s also a touch of urgency, or even frustration reflected in his show’s title for it’s the youth that embody the promise of tomorrow, yet it’s today that they’re being neglected, deprived and even robbed of opportunities by greedy old grabbers.
Ngugi entitles that series of jobless young Kenyans ‘Cogs in the system’ because, as he explains, what makes a system (like a car) move forward are the gears, all of which have cogs. If the cogs are broken or out of sync or left unattended, the system breaks down, which is the implicit message of this series.
Whether one picks up on the political implications of his art or not, Ngugi’s paintings reveal a progressive mastery of the use of colour.
Indeed, one of the most ingenious aspects of his current show is the ‘canvas’ on which he creates his art. He used palettes made of hard card board that he spontaneously covered with assorted colours (mostly oil paints and a few acrylics) while painting artworks over the past 10 years.
“I never threw one of my palettes away,” he told BDLife.
After that, he drew his silhouettes on the hardened paint and then carved his images out of the palettes using the thinnest blade of a hack saw.
“Normally, a hack saw is used to cut metal,” he said, “but I removed the blade from the saw and then cut the silhouettes out that way.”
We have seen lots of recycling of ‘found objects’ that become amazing works of art. But I have never seen a painter’s colour palette recycled and transformed first into silhouette busts of wananchi, then into a vibrant collection of Kenyan wildlife, each one given its own exclusive square, glued either onto wood or coloured canvas.
From gazelles, hippo, rhino and lion to monkeys, camel and giraffe, Ngugi’s collection is reminiscent of an earlier period of his work when he paid more attention to painting stylised creatures and kept his personal views out of his art.
For me, his decision to let his paintings reflect his perspectives on society is important. One could also say it’s more honest and less commercial since wildlife art tends to sell well to tourists who often prefer ‘art for art’s sake’.
Meanwhile, Michael Soi’s work is at Circle Art Gallery and the GoDown while Moses Mungai’s is up at the National Museum and a group show is at Red Hill Gallery.