Art

Two contrasting views of the land

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Timothy Brooke's oil painting at One Off Gallery exhibition opening, November 27, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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Summary

  • It is a story that has been at the core of Kenya’s problems for a very long time. Call it colonialism, call it land encroachment, call it a conflict between pastoralists, farmers, and conservationists.
  • The most remarkable painting in Brooke’s show is entitled ‘Morning Light’. It’s the most vivid, elegant, and colourfully engaging of all the oil paintings at One Off.
  • Many of Brooke’s paintings sell for nearly Sh1 million while Mung’ora, a newcomer to One Off has his paintings priced at approximately a quarter of that amount.

One Off art gallery’s chief curator Carol Lees says it was purely coincidental that the two exhibitions currently running in the Loft and the Stables are antithetical in their subject matter, style, and social statement.

“Both artists are talking about land in their art, but one paints an idyllic picture of the [White] Highlands while the other looks at the scene from an entirely different perspective,” says Ms Lees.

She adds that the radical distinction between the paintings of Timothy Brooke and Elias Mung’ora had not dawned on her until after the two shows were hung. But she admits the contrast adds evocative interest to the exhibitions which initially were not meant to have a conscious connection.

It was last September that Mung’ora took up an artist’s residency at the Tafaria Castle, near Rumuruti, formerly Thompson’s Falls.

“That’s where there have been a lot of land clashes in recent times,” says Mung’ora whose exhibition is suffused with cattle which he adds are symbols of conflict in his paintings.

One can feel the energy pulsating through all his works. There is also a sense of immediacy to them, almost as if he is not only an artist. He is also a photojournalist, painting pictures meant to chronicle both powerful images of present conflicts as well deep-seated emotions that complicate the situation.

It is a story that has been at the core of Kenya’s problems for a very long time. Call it colonialism, call it land encroachment, call it a conflict between pastoralists, farmers, and conservationists.

Whatever it is called, it’s the cattle who need land on which to graze, who need water in times of drought, and who symbolise the suffering of the people who are often sidelined in his art, as if people are bystanders, watching helplessly as small clusters of cattle occupy the central focus of Mung’ora’s art.

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Elias Mung'ora's untitled painting at One Off Gallery, November 27, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

All of his paintings in this untitled show are filled with subtle stories of strife and political content. The one-piece that doesn’t portray cattle symbolically still bespeaks the artist’s political concerns.

Entitled ‘My Neighbour’s House is on fire’, Mung’ora says he is also concerned about conflicts in other parts of East Africa, including Ethiopia and Sudan.

The one element of his art that seems inexplicable is the checker-boards that reappear in several of his paintings. They seem incongruous, but if the board is meant to symbolise a chess board having power players who manipulate ordinary people as if they were pawns, then the boards make sense.

It might imply that larger, less visible forces are playing the game.

Brooke also paints cattle in his current One Off show entitled ‘Seasons, Migration, Earth and Sky’ which opened last Saturday, November 27. But his cattle are placid, relaxed, and at peace with their pastoral environment, without concern for drought, cattle rustlers, or land rows.

What is more, Kenya’s veteran landscape artist also paints giraffes, lions, and elephants in this show.

For me, the most remarkable painting in Brooke’s show is entitled ‘Morning Light’. It’s the most vivid, elegant, and colourfully engaging of all the oil paintings at One Off.

It would seem there’s a subtle transition in Brooke’s art, from being less figurative than previously and more impressionist now. It’s a metamorphosis that’s warmly welcomed.

It reminds one of Vincent van Gogh whose later paintings are considered some of his finest specifically because they express a loosening of tight lines; also, the artist’s greater sense of freedom and spontaneity.

Even Monet painted his famous Waterlilies late in life when some might have expected he was too old to make masterpieces. Yet, on the contrary, the masterpieces would continue to emerge from an unfathomable well of creativity that ran deep in the artist’s heart.

Many of Brooke’s paintings sell for nearly Sh1 million while Mung’ora, a newcomer to One Off has his paintings priced at approximately a quarter of that amount.