Art

Shabu bridges divide between art and poetry

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Shabu Mwangi’s ‘Farm and Beauty’ painting. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • Shabu Mwangi is inspired by the downtrodden, the destitute, and the forgotten.
  • They have shown up in his art ever since he started painting in 2003.
  • His empathy seems to know no bounds, which is often a trait attributed to his growing up in the slums and understanding how difficult a life of poverty and struggle can be.

Shabu Mwangi is inspired by the downtrodden, the destitute, and the forgotten. They have shown up in his art ever since he started painting in 2003.

His empathy seems to know no bounds, which is often a trait attributed to his growing up in the slums and understanding how difficult a life of poverty and struggle can be.

Soon after he started painting, he was joined by friends to start Wajukuu Art Centre in Nairobi where they have been mentoring children.

But if his previous exhibitions have focused on the marginalised, in his current show at Circle Art Gallery (through February 17), he turns his attention to his quest for balance between hope and personal pain.

In ‘The Source of our Seas’ exhibition, he does not leave behind his empathy for others as in a work like ‘Broken Bones’ which reflects the hidden impact of violence, both structural and personal, on one miserable man.

Mwangi’s poetic spirit comes out in heartfelt verses that accompany several pieces in this show, which is his first solo exhibition at Circle gallery since 2017.

Between 2017 and now, he has attended workshops and residencies in Germany, UK, Italy and Kenya as well.

In the process, he has gone through an extended period of self-discovery, reflected in paintings and poems that reveal both dark and lighter aspects of his creative essence.

Mwangi has four poems in this show and they speak in a tone one does not necessarily see in works like ‘Birth place i, ii, or iii.’

The voice we hear in the four resonates in a tone that is deep, complicated, wise and surprisingly hopeful. Yet in the ‘Birth place’ works, we get an inkling of his difficult childhood. All three are dark, mainly painted in black with a little colour. All three are busts, self-portraits perhaps but portraits of his psyche including memories of his past. In the first, the bust is painted black with just a touch of pink and green. The second is almost entirely shaded in black and gray, and looking rather grotesque.

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Shabu Mwangi's painting called ‘Broken Bones’. PHOTO | POOL

And the third is now gray, outlined in black but surrounded by pink.

Other apparent pessimist paintings are ‘Self Cage’, ‘Distorted Self’, and ‘Waiting in the Cold.’

Yet Mwangi gave titles having a hopeful message to paintings like ‘Looking to the Future’. ‘Essence of Being’ and ‘It grows on me as I grow.’

It is the poetry that tells the story of Mwangi, the poet-philosopher who has lived a life of struggle and pain but has emerged with sagacious wisdom and self-knowledge.

One poem that encapsulates his message is ‘Broken Bones’. It is the poem that tells us the bones metaphorically refer not just to another frail being but himself. He, with support from professional poet Sitawa Namwalie, writes: “All these layers of pain .. will lead me home.”

Writing in a conversational style, as if he is advising a friend, he writes that, despite the pain, not to “… lose your equanimity.’

In his poem ‘Head Drowning’, you might expect a tragic tale. Instead, he writes, ‘Still trying to float”… but then he ends being ‘seated at the source of our seas’, giving insight into how he selected the title of his exhibition.

In ‘Not enough’, he shows his capacity to not take himself too seriously. He writes, “I have nothing too/ but the self is here.” He reminds us to “Allow self not to be contained by fear/ Feel the breeze.”

In the one poem that reveals a personal relationship gone bad, he writes in ‘Beyond the mirror’ which hangs in the gallery next to the painting of the same name, “You… became my oracle/but you left/with my sight./I was left blindfolded.

‘Unfold my reality/so I can see again.’

But, his ability to mock himself is shown in the poem, ‘It all grows in me’. There he writes, ‘Seen as one who is insane’, what others call ‘insane’ to him is ‘being different.’ He thus advises to ‘Love that different’.

That’s Mwangi seen in a new light, as both poet and world-acclaimed painter.