Soon after Paul Onditi came home from Germany where he had spent a decade working and studying at the Offenbach Academy of Art, he held his first Kenyan exhibition at Nairobi’s Alliance Française.
It was a showstopper. He displayed not only a new technique of painting, using materials never seen before in Nairobi. His art also featured an enigmatic little man simply named Smokey.
Smokey was an adventurous creation of the artist, possibly even his alter-ego. But the who, why, and where of the character was a mystery. The answers gradually emerged as Onditi had more exhibitions and his curious public continued to query this endearing character who seemed to be wandering far and wide.
But then one day, Smokey disappeared and Onditi’s art lost the narrative. His works went abstract. Then came Covid-19, and Onditi went silent. But like many local artists, he was busy working during the lockdown.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Onditi tells BDLife soon after the July 1 opening of his first post-pandemic solo show entitled ‘Déjà vu’ at the GravitArt Gallery in Westlands, Nairobi.
Onditi brought Smokey back onto the synthetic sheets that had become his canvas of choice.
“Bringing Smokey back may feel like 'déjà vu' [feeling like you have seen something before] to some people, but I felt it was time,” says Onditi.
“Smokey hadn’t disappeared during that period between 2017 and 2019. I was simply developing his background stories,” he adds.
Two works in his current show reflect that cellular-styled composition. Painted in 2019, “Not Sober I and II” had already begun to bring back Smokey. Yet they look like the beginning of his déjà vu period when Smokey looks slightly awkward and confused with the new world that has evolved during these pandemic days.
In the exhibition, GravitArt founder and curator Veronica Paradinas Duro included two of Onditi’s early works, one from 2015 entitled ‘Facing the Horizon Three’ and ‘Timeless’ from 2017.
The earlier work is mainly black, white, and grey while the 2017 piece is more colourful and clear-cut. Smokey seems to be trekking into the big city, but he also seems to have a premonition that the city may be headed for hard times. Those hard times have now arrived, it would seem. Works like ‘Digital Mystery’, ‘Chronicles’, and ‘Enveloped’ feature a murky world where Smokey can only see confusion and chaos, says Veronica who is also an artist.
A work like ‘Frozen State’ reveals Smokey looking despondent with his head bowed as if he feels nearly defeated. Other paintings that further suggest Smokey feeling alone and unclear as to where in the world he is, are works like ‘Smokey X’, ‘Timeless’ (2021), and ‘Oh No X.’ All are primarily painted in black, white, and grey, with just a touch of colour.
The one work that I found almost hopeful is ‘Ventricular.’ It’s one of the most colourful works in the show, with Smokey situated in a green grassy field where he seems to be walking into a beautiful forest. Finding solace and hope in nature is a positive sign. Yet the ambiguity is still apparent as a white misty belt seems to be barring his way.
The other one that implies a future of possibilities is ‘Self Time’ or having time for one’s self, suggests Veronica. In the painting there seems to be two Smokeys, not one. Onditi says there is only one since the image of Smokey in the background is his reflection “from the other side. The implication being that Smokey is projecting himself into a future after getting through these difficult times.
Onditi’s paintings sold at a reduced price for his GravitArt show. They ranged from Sh90,000 to Sh800,000 and nearly all were sold.