- Having opened last Sunday, October 31, and running through December, ‘Faces’ isn’t simply about portraiture or beautiful paintings that realistically replicate the facial features of people we may know (or not).
- That has been done and overdone, especially by a multitude of young artists who hopefully make a living drawing (and occasionally tracing from sent photos) images of couples, babies, and plenty of pretty, young faces.
Red Hill Gallery’s chief curator Hellmuth Rossler-Musch had a reason for entitling his current exhibition ‘Faces’.
Having opened last Sunday, October 31, and running through December, ‘Faces’ isn’t simply about portraiture or beautiful paintings that realistically replicate the facial features of people we may know (or not). That has been done and overdone, especially by a multitude of young artists who hopefully make a living drawing (and occasionally tracing from sent photos) images of couples, babies, and plenty of pretty, young faces.
But the ‘Faces’ at Red Hill are different. Only a few, like one by Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos, have a naturalistic style. Yet, even then, the Nairobi-based Eritrean artist apparently delights in using bold, contrasting colors that further arrest one’s attention and compel you to reflect on the contours of his character, a stunning young African man whose promise and sense of optimism radiates in vibrant colors stroked skillfully on Fitsum’s canvas.
Richard Kimathi’s melancholic Madonna might also seem drawn directly from nature. Yet looking deeper, one will feel she’s a soulful composite of the artist’s emotional response to some larger circumstance. For Kimathi is a conceptual artist whose paintings invariably reflect on deeper and often more devastating concerns. In her case, this nameless child might be Kimathi’s notion of a refugee child, an orphan, or even a sex slave. She’s likely to be a representative of one such group. Her face is enigmatic enough to elicit such a response. I could be wrong, and Kimathi doesn’t talk much about his art. But the mystery is part of the magic of his artistic appeal.
The South African artist, Charles Sekano, specializes in painting faces using oil pastels on paper. The work in the Red Hill show is from a particularly fertile time in Sekano’s artistic development. He was still living, working, and evolving artistically in 1985 when Rossler-Musch estimates it was drawn. He had been living in Nairobi for several years, having fled Apartheid, first shifting to Tanzania, then finding his way to Kenya.
It was in Nairobi that Sekano taught himself everything from jazz piano and trumpet to painting and drawing. The subject matter of his art was initially inspired by his longing for his sisters. Their memory fueled his first paintings. Thereafter, lovely young women continued to feature in his art.
In the work at Red Hill, Sekano like Fitsum, uses bright colors to amplify his feelings about the four beauties. One is jet black, another chocolate brown, yet another orange ochre, and the last one, beige bordering towards white. They don’t seem to have a care in the world, which was the exact hope Sekano had for his sisters.
Finally, Rossler-Musch isn’t shy about including ugly faces in his show. For Samuel Githinji’s face is both grotesque and scary. One might also ask why the face is even in the exhibition, since it might intimidate more innocent viewers who don’t understand the world’s fascination for horror and blood-lust.
Yet Githinji isn’t just painting like a primitive for style’s sake. He meant to create ludicrous works that might appall even the wisest eyes. For Githinji like Kimathi has something deeper to evoke in his audience. He creates paintings and three-dimensional tapestries that bespeak poverty. He shamelessly paints the beggar who might not have the strength to protest his plight, so Githinji aims to do it for him. His rage at injustice and the world’s inhumanity is conveyed, again in powerful colors, mostly flaming reds and burnt-out blacks. Githinji aims to make powerful, uncompromising statements which are most visibly seen in his faces.
Finally, the one woman in the Red Hill show is the Egyptian artist, Soaud Abdelrassoud. Having come initially to Kenya with her artist spouse, Salah Elmur whose art is also in the Faces show, Soaud had her first exhibition at Red Hill and has been exhibiting around the city ever since.
Personally, I am especially fond of the technique she employed to produce her ink-on-map face. It’s a style suggested to her, she told Business Daily in 2015, by Elmur. He at one time had been in short supply of art materials and so, used pages from second-hand books as the ‘canvas’ on which to create his art.
Elmur no longer works that way, but she discovered second-hand science books and books filled with maps offered her rare inspiration. She takes the lines, forms and contours on any page and allows them to help guide her drawing. What evolves is magical, evocative and highly original.