Artist captures Covid-19 fears through works


Boniface Maina’s works on display at Circle Art Gallery. PHOTO | POOL | NMG



  • Suffused with images of bodies half stashed away in big flour sacks, they all seem to be stuck in inescapable spaces and stranded in tedium but for an occasional whiff of curiosity. 

Watching, Wishing, Waiting” is Boniface Maina's first solo exhibition at Circle Art Gallery. It's essentially about how Kenyans have been responding to Covid-19 since the first case was reported in the country and spooked people in the same way it has everywhere else on the planet.

Suffused with images of bodies half stashed away in big flour sacks, they all seem to be stuck in inescapable spaces and stranded in tedium but for an occasional whiff of curiosity. 

Wananchi seem to be wondering: When will this virus lockdown be done? When can we stop wishing for better days and a way to escape this apparently inescapable pandemic? And while we watch for a way out of this horrible global conundrum, can we do nothing more than wait and wonder, what's the way forward?

Those look like some of the questions asked by Maina's curiously-sacked characters whose legs cannot carry them anywhere but a half-step inside the sack. Nearly all his quirky guys seem to be representatives of not just Kenyans but the global masses.

They look like anonymous beings who don't really understand what is a corona-virus except that it's an invisible assassin.

It strikes indiscriminately so one's supposed to stay home or do other boring things, like wear a mask (which means you can barely breathe), keep a one and a half meter distance from friends and foes alike, and 'sanitise' (wash your hands) often, especially when you dare step outside.

But not all the whimsical characters in Maina's show (only the second since Circle reopened) look as lost and wistful as those encumbered in 'gunia' sacks or body-covering shawls. He had previously been at work on another series exploring a different topic altogether late in 2019.

Ironically, it was all about freedom, but that was when he and most of the world was blissfully oblivious to what was coming soon from Wuhan, China.

Like many of Maina's previous works, those pre-virus paintings are autobiographical.

They're all about his emotional encounter with life which was surprisingly upbeat at the time. Several works convey the joy of starting a new day, one illustrating a simple pleasure like an expansive morning stretch.

Another has him also stretched out tall with his curly dreadlocks blowing in a savannah breeze, with the city taking shape at a distance.

Clearly, Maina was shamelessly enjoying his life. These few are among my favourites in the show. They are easily identified since the artist is included proudly sporting his extended dreads.

There are only about five pre-Covid paintings out of the 45 works in the exhibition. But they don't distract from Maina's overriding message. That is to convey Kenyans' mood of 'watching, wishing [and] waiting' for the pandemic to end.

In fact, the artist does not disassociate himself from the rest of his fellow Kenyans, for he too feels at loose ends. And that is why he is so adept at translating their quandary into curious paintings in acrylics on canvas and paper.

The difference between him and them, of course, is that he's a gifted visual translator of his people's feelings and angst.

Other local artists have painted their perspectives on Covid-19, but few have expressed the nuances of people's perplexed feelings of discomfort as subtly as Maina has done. Few have managed to convey the stupefying sense of enforced passivity as well as he has.

Nonetheless, Maina never explores a theme without a touch of humour included, which is why the awkward poses of his sacked men must amuse at the same time as they make us feel pathos at their predicament, which is also ours.

In fact, Circle Art had an exhibition opening for Maina. But one had to register in advance to attend since Danda Jaroljmek, the gallery's director, abides by the health standards of social distancing, etcetera.

Maina's show will be ending soon although some will surely be online to see. This week the third solo show at Circle Art by Kenyan artist Dickson Otieno.

One other dimension of Boniface Maina that can't be forgotten is the role he has played in advancing contemporary Kenyan art.

It was he, together with David Thuku and Michael Musyoka who launched the Brush tu Artists Studio back in 2015. It's one of the few Kenyan artists cooperative to come up in Eastlands (although more have followed such as Studio Soko and others).

It is also one of the most dynamic and welcoming venues in town. Find them in Buru Buru Phase 1.