Art

The remnants of holiday art show

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From The Tapestries if Oyr Shared History, by Fitsum Behre Woldelibanos. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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Summary

  • The pandemic has not made life easy for art galleries, given the lockdowns and social distancing protocols.
  • Nonetheless, One Off was able to stay open and assemble a dazzling array of works by artists for its post-Christmas show.
  • It includes works by Peter Ngugi, Michael Musyoka, Beatrice Wanjiku, and Jackson Wanjau to David Thuku, Sophie Walbeoffe, Peterson Kamwathi, and Fitsum Berhe among others.

One Off Art Gallery in Nairobi extended its Christmas show through mid-January, offering art lovers a chance to see colourful and eclectic exhibitions that Carol Lees had curated in 2020.

The pandemic has not made life easy for art galleries, given the lockdowns and social distancing protocols. Nonetheless, One Off was able to stay open and assemble a dazzling array of works by artists for its post-Christmas show. It includes works by Peter Ngugi, Michael Musyoka, Beatrice Wanjiku, and Jackson Wanjau to David Thuku, Sophie Walbeoffe, Peterson Kamwathi, and Fitsum Berhe among others.

The themes are fresh and so are the colours, and designs employed by the artists. Take, for instance, Ngugi’s painting, ‘Small Book Clique’, with its backdrop design of five-liter sized containers of popular cooking oil.

“Peter said that one kind of cooking oil is the item most frequently bought at the local kiosk, and paid for using a small book,” says Carol Lees told BDLife.

Presumably, it’s the kiosk owner, dressed in a bright multi-coloured kitenge dress who is in the foreground of Ngugi’s painting. She stands next to two casually dressed men, while all three have been drawn in nearly life-sized forms. And like virtually all the characters in Ngugi’s community-based paintings, none have facial features, only black silhouetted heads.

But the blackened faces do not distract from the naturalistic gestures of the otherwise colourful figures in Ngugi’s art.

The small book serves as a sort of credit card and is popular among the local population.

Another stunner of a piece in One Off’s post-Christmas show is one by Fitsum entitled ‘From tapestries of our shared histories VIII'. He has several portraits in the exhibition, both in the Loft and Stable gallery. But the one I found most arresting was his portrait of a woman whose face was shaded in cheerful hues and encircled by floral designs that Carol explained were replicas of those discovered on ancient Chinese porcelain that had washed up on our Coastal shores over time.

And like Ngugi’s painting, one finds in Fitsum's piece, the design elements are just as important to the total impact of the painting as the figure (or figures) in the foreground.

Human figures are pervasive in much of the One-Off show. There are classic portraits of Kenyans by Olivia Prendergast, so-called ‘Savage Beast’ men in Kamwathi's drawings, multiple running men in Musyoka's latest interpretation of 'Time' as a finite human constraint, and in sculptures by Jackson Wanjau and Bertiers Mbatia.

Beatrice takes a totally new look at the human form. Her latest oil paintings on canvas depict internal organs and skeletal structures (like a rib cage) in monochromatic hues. Still semi-abstract in design, Beatrice’s works depart from her previous focus on blackened shapes. Now she experiments with much brighter colours and less abstract forms.

Nonetheless, one still feels the organs have a deeper, more symbolic significance that runs within the inner features of the works.

Sophie Walbeoffe’s ‘Lamu’ coastline takes us out of the realm of human conjecture and into bright equatorial sunlight where the artist has spent time painting many facets of the village and preparing an elegant book filled with glowing images of one of Kenya's most idyllic spots.

Lamu is still a place where cars are forbidden, and dhows and donkeys remain the most prevalent modes of public transport.

One painting that sends an attractive yet sobering message is by David Thuku whose art has been exploring the theme of consumerism and its impact on the individual for some time.

But unlike his previous visual commentaries on the topic, Thuku doesn’t examine the impact on individuals. Rather, his 'portrait' is of a tattered piece of packaging, symbolic of the end of an era. The pandemic has certainly constrained consumers' ability to shop. What remains is the trash, including tattered pieces of plastic packaging.