Wini Awuondo’s recent exhibition of refined paintings and drawings at Shifteye Gallery in Priory House revealed one of the freshest new faces on the Kenya visual art scene. Making her debut in her first one-woman show in Nairobi, Wini aptly entitled her display of mixed media paintings ‘Unmasked’.
It’s appropriate because she’s chosen to invest heavily imagination-wise in every one of her paintings. It’s as if she lays herself bare through her art, showing us how much energy, artistry and love of vibrant life-affirming colours she has.
Working in bright acrylic hues painted on either canvas, paper or wood, she accentuates the fine lines of her mostly androgynous creatures with carefully drawn pen and ink.
Designing each of her paintings in painstaking detail, what I find most intriguing about her art is that it’s quite unlike anyone else’s in the Nairobi art world. That could be due to her studies abroad in the UK where she gained global exposure to international art trends and traditions. The result is that one can see a wide range of influences in her artwork.
For instance, the feathers that feature in many of her works seem reminiscent of iconic images of American Indians whose headdresses are distinctive for their majestic effect. Yet the Joy Adamson collection of her pre-Independence paintings of Kenyan communities in their traditional costumes, jewellery and weaponry currently exhibiting at the Nairobi National Museum clearly shows that Kenyans also dressed in feather head wear and animal skin capes, loin cloths and skirts.
The point is that Wini’s style of painting is worldly in that it transcends national boundaries, typical imagery and genre.
On the one hand, one might suggest that her paintings are portraiture since each one is focused on a single entity having eyes (sometimes just one, two, three or more), noses and mouths, although ears tend to be absent. And mouths could be connected to two bodies not one; the noses tend to be flat, multi-coloured and placed in irregular spots.
What’s more, Wini seems to take every creature’s appendage as an opportunity to try out another colour and design. That’s especially true in the case of her dancers whose graceful poses appear to be like those found among East Indian Hindu temple dancers.
Wini herself described the beings that she paints as mainly ‘androgynous’, although she also seems to feature more female creatures than male in Unmasked. Nonetheless, all her paintings are suffused with colour that’s decked out in intricate and decorative designs.
Those designs almost look like tattoos in the sense that they seem to be directly applied to what would otherwise be understood as human skin. Yet one can’t be certain Wini’s creatures are even human since they all have a surreal appearance and feel that makes them seem more like aliens from outer space.
In fact, Wini’s work is actually borne in her inner space, lodged securely inside her inner world of the creative, intuitive and wildly imaginative.
On opening night, her exhibition was opened by Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, a long-time friend of the Awuondos. Wini’s parents were also on hand, clearly proud and pleased that their daughter has found her passion and career path.
Wini told BDLife that her father, Isaac Awuondo, the managing director of the Commercial Bank of Africa, has always been supportive of her choice to go to art school instead of law or medical school. Being a lover of fine art himself and putting a chunky sum of money into funding art collections in all CBA branches, Mr Awuondo said that he owned several paintings by his daughter which, of course, he had bought.
The price of Wini’s paintings range from Sh12,500 (acrylics on paper) to Sh95,000 (for the acrylic on canvas, Now until Forever).
Wini’s been back from university for almost two years, but she only surfaced late last year when two of her paintings were featured among the works of around 40 other mainly Kenyan artists.
Those two works stood out for me, but as I didn’t know her at the time, I had to wait to see her art again at Shifteye to fully appreciate Wini’s versatility and wide ranging artistic and vibrant style.
Meanwhile, at least one of Kenya’s many visual artists will have his work on show at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Elkana Ong’esa’s 10-ton Kisii stone elephant entitled “Hands off our Elephants” is being shipped to Washington, DC this coming week.