Having two of Kenya’s artistic giants on display at One Off Gallery in Nairobi at once is the opportunity gallerist Carol Lees affords the public this month through September 19.
Beatrice Wanjiku and Anthony Okello are two of the rising stars on the East African visual art scene and their shows at One Off reveal the rich diversity that our artists explore.
Beatrice and Okello could not be more different in their approach to painting. Leave alone that she works with acrylics and he with oils.
Beyond that, their styles, subjects, and the sentiments they interrogate in their art are radically different.
Beatrice goes straight to the core of our being, bypassing the superficialities and diving into the common features of being human, like bones, blood, veins and other guts.
She has a way of striping her subjects down, literally to the bare bones so one has little choice but to journey with her into those interior parts.
Beatrice has taken us into those mental interiors in her previous shows. But often I’d felt I was heading towards a ‘heart of darkness’ where some inner sadness was revealed through her art.
But there is a radical shift in the artist’s perspective in this show that she entitles “A wild infection of the wildly shaken public mind.”
Now her means of dealing with a ‘wildly shaken public mind’ is to continue reflecting on the deeper challenges of being human. Only now, there is far more brightness, hope, and possibility in her art.
In her headlining show, there is one feature of the human form that repeats itself in multiple iterations. (Someone suggested her repeated forms reminded them of Monet’s multiple beach scenes which he painted and repaints at all hours of day and night.) And that is the ribcage.
I find that an apt metaphor since Beatrice seems to be dealing with a delicate subject, namely, what it means to be safe and secure in these times of Covid.
Beatrice said she began this body of work well before Covid-19 hit the world stage. “I began this series in 2018,” she said.
The ribcage itself is a protected zone, a brilliant structure designed to protect precious organs like the lungs, heart, and liver from events that could ‘shake the public mind.’
“For me, human bodies are a metaphor for mental frames of reference,” says Beatrice whose art seems to have a larger, more universal message. It is that irrespective of one’s skin, facial features, body size, or gender, the human condition is shared by all.
Beatrice still prefers to work with darkened hues, especially shades of black and dark blue. But now, she also includes works where the brightness of her hues explodes on her canvas.
And as those explosions take place in works where pelvic bones are prominent, I had to ask what that light source was meant to signify?
“It’s about re-birth,” Beatrice says simply. “It’s also about hope and new possibilities,” she adds. With that major hint in mind, I begin to reevaluate my views of all her paintings. All have dazzling moments of brightness, be they yellow, bright orange, blood red, or even white.
The blood-red might suggest violence, but for Beatrice, it would seem that the colour affirms renewed life, energy, and power.
She has a unique way of looking at the anatomy of the mind. For instance, in one painting, what appears to be positioned like a womb, is painted in blacks and blues. But Beatrice explains that all the growth inside the womb goes on in the darkness, waiting for the time to be right, and a new being is born. But that’s another phase, another painting.
So when she says her work is about journeying in life, Beatrice is reclaiming a life of hope and rebirth, when darkness is only a bridge to something brighter and more full of possibility.
Okello’s art is also life-affirming. But rather than starting from a dark point and emerging into the light, he has already arrived and found there’s time for self-reflection. But equally, there’s joy in looking at the beautiful and the absurd, the ironic and the elegant. His colours harmonise and his spirit soars in his art.
One final contrast between Okello and Beatrice is pricing. Hers run up into over a million while Okello’s run in the several hundred thousand.