Samuel Ashante’ Githinji is a new man, having undergone some sort of psychic metamorphosis. It has made him into a full-fledged painter who works with oils of a wide spectrum of sunny colours.
The art that Githinji brought to his second solo show at Red Hill Gallery in Nairobi is startling for someone who knows his previous works.
I confessed to Ashante when I met him at the Sunday opening that his previous paintings were grim and depressing.
He used to paint black and white figures accented with blood-red splashes of colour.
But his struggles are between what gallerist Hellmuth Rossler describes as being darkness and light. His current works, Hellmuth adds, definitely swing more towards the light.
Upon entering the gallery, it is the two floral garden paintings that grab my attention. He entitled them ‘Mutitu Forest’, and explained how he had grown up visiting that dense forest which was a sacred shrine.
Unfortunately, he had also witnessed the way it had been chopped down by land grabbers, loggers, and farmers who had abandoned the area.
“The forest has come back to life,” Githinji told BDLife, after having made the concept of renewal or new birth the cornerstone of this exhibition.
It is most apparent in his never-before-seen use of majestic blues, shimmering silvers, glorious golds, and peachy reds that cover the canvases with his fresh perspective of Mutitu Forest which has revived and coincidentally, also revitalised the artist himself.
That revival, revitalisation or resurrection to new life is most apparent in Githinji’s own ‘Self-Portrait’. It is a painting that one would not immediately equate with a self-portrait since there is no human face or realistic rendition of the man.
Instead, he says his essence is “symbolised by the white flower” which is delicately painted at the centre of the work. It is surrounded by other flowers making the piece look more like a vibrant still-life all framed by a window through which one can see the artist’s signature moon.
“The moon is in all of Ashante’s paintings,” says Hellmuth who is an expert in the young man’s art.
The other signature in every one of his paintings is a carefully stitched-up slashing which was cut by the artist. Hellmuth suggests that is an emotional reaction to his painting. Githinji agrees a piece of his work does not feel complete until he has gone through that slash-and-stitch process.
My theory is it is his way of symbolically conveying the sense of pain and struggle that he still feels, even when he returns to his childhood forest shrine and feels restored, just as Nature had the means of recreating the exquisite forest after the humans have left it to itself.
The new birth also underpins the largest work in the show. It is entitled ‘Song of Freedom’ and it’s sung by five stick figures who he says are still seeking the full freedom that comes with knowing one’s self. All five are hopeful as one can see symbolised in the beautiful plants at the base of each questing character.
Best described as a tapestry, Githinji says he painted it on sisal, made from five sisal-fiber bags which he took apart, then stitched together to create the equivalent of a large and costly canvas. Having neither a tailor nor seamstress in his house growing up, he says he taught himself how to stitch and sew.
Yet as hopeful as Githinji’s current paintings seem to be, he is still haunted by the dark side. He makes that apparent by bringing three drawings in charcoal of ‘Untitled’ characters, each of whom is a prisoner as symbolised, he says by the single black horizontal line across the centre of each work. Each figure is also veiled in a black mesh which he says further encumbers them.
Yet their influence in the exhibition is minimal as they are surrounded by characters like ‘The Philosopher at the Window’ which hangs just outside the gallery entrance right next to an older piece by the same Githinji. The startling contrast between the grim and the gorgeous full-colour oil painting that is the first sighting of the new works is unbelievable.
But you best believe and see it for yourself.