Two gentle giants of the Kenya visual arts world currently have separate exhibitions at One Off Gallery from last Saturday, May 28.
Richard Kimathi and Ehoodi Kichapi could not be more different in their approach to painting. But that is part of the fascination of their shows.
With Ehoodi in the Loft, [the original One Off gallery] and Kimathi in the former Stables, one feels like she is entering two different worlds, one terrestrial and thus its title, ‘Rocky Roads’; the other not so much celestial as cerebral and untitled, although Kichapi suggests he could be called ‘Resurrection’ or simply ‘I’m back!’ Either way, he says he has been down so long, his art has enabled him to be back on the scene and upbeat.
Both shows are filled with works created during the lockdown. Both are reflective of the challenges that Kenyans have faced during these dire times. One explores the Covid-19 crisis from a more societal point of view, while the other’s art is highly personal, intimate and intense.
Anyone familiar with their past works knows that it is Kimathi who sees the world through a wide-angle lens, grounded, and populated with people having a common concern.
During the ongoing lockdown, that issue has been, not just Kenyan but global: It’s what to do without work or income, or a means of sustaining stable family life. Thus, the only thing that is rock solid in his paintings is the roads under these men’s feet and in a few cases, the rocks with which some are loaded down.
Ehoodi’s issue, on the other hand, relates more to the individual, his mental health, and to one man’s internal means of coping with the burdens this life has brought him. Both artists are best known as painters, but in their ‘Rocky Road’ show, both also experiment with sculpture.
Kimathi’s are practically a pun in that they all look more like humble rocks than sculptures, more like props to illustrate the physical weight of the burdensome stones that young jobless men carry in Kimathi’s paintings.
At the same time, he has shaped these pock-marked stones into faces that look out at you tragically. It’s as if the artist’s touch has magically animated these inanimate rocks with the spark of imagination and new life.
Ehoodi’s sculptures are only two, both symbolic of the artist’s frame of mind during his darkest days.
“The cow is a symbol of complete disintegration,” he says, implying that his own life was veering dangerously towards a similar end before his mental demons were ‘exorcised.’
Explaining that by disintegration, he means that all of a cow’s parts are consumed, including their skin, bones, intestines, muscles, blood and even their horns. His other sculpture is a donkey wrapped in barbed wire and attached by wire to a barbed-wire sphere.
“The donkey is a symbol of resilience, but the wire wrapping means resilience under duress,” says Ehoodi. “I felt like that. And like the donkey, I was also weighed down by the world’s burdens,” he adds.
Thankfully, Ehoodi’s paintings reflect his journey from darkness, symbolised by three portraits of the same demonic she-spirit he had to exorcise to take back his life. “She held me in limbo until I finally got help to get her out of my system,” he says during the Saturday exhibition opening at One Off.
Admitting the mental challenges he has faced have not been understood by family and some friends.
“But my painting has enabled me to exorcise my demons out of my mind and onto canvas,” says Ehoodi. But the proof that he has passed through a fiery mental furnace and emerged whole is visible in two other portraits of women in his show. “They are my angels,” he says, pointing to the two sweet faces that reflect the artist’s renewed peace of mind.
“You might call this exhibition ‘resurrection’,” says Ehoodi who admits he has still a bit sceptical that his she-demon is not out of his life for good.
“That’s why I have painted motorcycles. They are for making my escape from her,” he says half-jokingly. Ehoodi’s art still has that flamboyant flair and use of bold brush strokes. But unlike past shows when his work sometimes seemed derivative of the late African American artist Jean Michel Basquiat, Ehoodi’s fiery furnace has burned off any artifice and leaves him with his style.