Empathy and intimacy in Florence Wangui's artworks


Florence Wangui and her paintings at One Off Gallery on September 25, 2021. PHOTOS | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Florence Wangui has a degree in Zoological Science and Biochemistry from Kenyatta University.

But that did not stop her from heading straight after graduation to The GoDown Art Centre where she set up an art studio just next to her future mentor and most admired Kenyan artist, Patrick Mukabi.

“For as long as I can recall, I have drawn and sketched things around me. But it wasn't until I read a newspaper story about painters like Patrick and Richard Onyango that I knew anything about Art," says Wangui, who recently had a successful one-woman show in New York.

Her current solo exhibition, entitled ByCatch, just opened this past weekend at One Off Contemporary Art Gallery. It's her third solo show at the Rosslyn gallery. It is also one that reflects the same sort of empathy and intimacy that one finds in all the artistry of this young Kenyan artist.

One saw those qualities in her art when she was just starting at The GoDown and her primary source of inspiration was chicken. Yes, cocks and hens that she seemed to know intimately, which in most cases, she did.

Her portraits of these birds were uncanny in that they each seemed to have a penetrating personality which Wangui had got to know at home where her mother was keeping them.

“Being firstborn, I often had to stay home to look after my siblings while my mother worked,” Wangui told BDLife.

“In that context, the chicken was the most interesting to draw," she adds. It was during those times that she developed a keen eye for anatomy, as well as a sensitivity and empathy for the subjects of her studies (and possibly what influenced her to study zoology at university).

Wangui's subsequent exhibitions have shown a shift in her attention from the zoological to the human.

Yet she still paints portraits that seem to penetrate the visible to reveal the inner vitality and emotional moods of her subjects.

Choosing her sister Wambugo to serve as her main model, Wangui has portrayed a whole range of intimate emotions related to women in her more recent shows, including the one in New York.

Several of the works from that exhibition are in 'ByCatch'. The show's curator, Carol Lees, (who is also One Off's founder and director) devoted a whole room in the Gallery to these exquisite portraits of women 'in transition'. And just as her chicken had an uncanny aura of intelligence to them, so Wangui's women look contemplative.

“They're giving thought to major decisions they are making about their lives,” she adds.

The rest of ByCatch is a whole other story. Wangui again takes on a topic that intimately touches her own life. It's related to family, but more precisely, it relates to men whose struggles she sees and ponders pictorially.

So how come she's got so many dead fish in this show? That must be the first question many visitors to OneOff will ask.

Fortunately, Wangui is quick to respond to the query from BDLife.

"It's an analogy," she says. "Fish get ensnared in nets from which they can hardly escape.

In the same way, I see men snagged in systems that make so many demands and put so much pressure on them," she adds.

Experiencing these pressures empathetically through men close to her heart, Wangui's empathy is amplified in this show as we see fish swallowing alluring bait even as men seem equally ensnared in socio-economic and cultural systems they cannot easily escape.

In several of her paintings, the men are struggling literally to flee from flying nets aimed directly at them.

In a few of her works, it is women who are struggling not to be trapped.

But Wangui's focus in ByCatch is more on the fate of young men whom she feels have fewer means of coping with the social pressures put upon them.

“Irrespective of whether a man is rich or poor, society still has high expectations of him. But it doesn't necessarily offer the means for him to meet them,” she says.