Anthony Okello has been described as “one of the most important artists of his generation.” I would go further and say Okello is one of the most important artists in the region, especially for his epoch series of paintings which examined the mythologies and cultural identities of several Kenyan communities, namely the Luo, Kikuyu, and Taita people.
Taking on the role of cultural chronicler was a challenge Okello has relished, even if he didn’t identify himself as such. His ‘Masquerade Series’ projected an idiom that resonated well with the political and social climate of the times, when duplicity was all-pervasive, and masks were meant to hide the criminality of crooks in high office.
Okello’s latest series of works is in his current solo show at One Off Gallery entitled ‘Between Losing and Finding’.
“I’m not making a statement in this series,” he tells BD Life a day after the exhibition opened on June 25th. “I’m asking a question,” he says. And that query is the title of five works in the exhibition that runs for a month, until July 24th.
In his typically elusive style, he doesn’t explain what his title “Which Side?” refers to. “It could be many things,” he says. It might refer to politics, religion, ethnicity, or any other contested topic that wafts through the cultural atmosphere at any time. “It’s true, I’m not done with this series,” he adds.
The series definitely leaves one wondering what do all of these portraits have in common? They are all men, one wearing a Muslim cap, one a young man in a chartreuse t-shirt, one a businessman wearing a three-piece suit, one in a straw hat, and one in a bright orange vest.
Okello leaves us guessing as he explains the secret to this exhibition is in the title, ‘Between Losing and Finding.’ He has lost people close to his heart but he doesn’t want to talk about that. Suffice it to say, he has struggled emotionally to find his way back to being himself, he says. And that is to be an artist.
That struggle is best expressed in his oil painting entitled ‘Heaviness’. It’s the first one you see as you walk into The Loft and see a beautifully beheaded body wearing a black, red, and gold striped suit. It doesn’t instantly hit you that the stripes are meant to suggest someone’s in jail.
But the more one ponders the painting, one sees two shadowy beings in the background of the work. “They exist in the mind of the [beheaded] one,” Okello says, giving us a hint that the one wearing the stipes is himself, and the two behind might be the spirit of those whom he’s lost. Their loss is apparently the basis of the ‘heaviness’ of his heart and the reason he’s named this particular painting.
At the other end of the gallery is ‘Entertainers on Tour’. Filled with musical cows, including several crooning through their microphones, it looks antithetical to the previous painting which registers pain while this one resounds with pleasure.
“I’m living in Athi River where there are lots of musicians around who are always making music,” he says. “I think that’s where that painting came from,” he guesses. Nonetheless, he’s almost apologetic about the work. “I’m only using color in the piece to cover up what I’m really feeling,” he adds, alluding to the muted hues in the painting.
“What’s more important than color is light and dark,” he continues. “It’s about black and white. Life itself is never about color; it’s about shading.”
So Okello now speaks as someone who has picked a side, the side of shading over color. Yet virtually all the works in this show are suffused with color.
Okello has a point, however, if one examines a work like ‘Prayer Pearls’ in which the white pearls have the greatest impact in a painting that is otherwise dark. In ‘Their Glorious Selves’, all eyes are instantly drawn to the man with the white turban and to the whites in his and his friend’s eyes.
“it’s a matter of technique,” he says. “I drew the sketch for ‘Prayer pearls’ some 15 years ago, but I didn’t have the technique to complete it until now,” he claims.
Yet some of us who knew his work 15 years back will disagree with Okello. That was when he was painting his surrealistic mythologies and telling visual stories that made us hope he’d do the same for all the communities in Kenya, which someday maybe he will.