Leo’s self-portraits take an oblique turn

Leo with his art


Leo Mativo is a shy guy who has been painting for years. But he has always kept a low profile, up until now.

Now he is having his first solo exhibition at Alliance Francaise and calling it ‘Mirror, Mirror: Portraits of Being Alive’.

Blending semi-figurative features with what he calls abstract expressionism, Leo is creating his own aesthetic and poetic language that feels more like a new form of surrealism than anything else.

Leo actually trained in Architecture at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and tells BDLife he considers himself a ‘self-taught’ artist.

But what he may have missed in formal training in fine art, he has gained in self-reliance and confidence in his own imagination.

He has also learned to listen to and trust in the advice and insights of his mentors.

They include artists like Shabu Mwangi who has been encouraging him keep on doing what he loves. Shabu also spoke on Leo’s behalf at the artist’s opening on January 18.

Leo 2


Another mentor who took the time to appreciate Leo’s work, and also make several astute remarks that were meant to strengthen his presentation is Charles Courdent, Director of Alliance Francaise.

In one conversation with the artist, Mr Courdent raised the issue of the valuation of contemporary art, particularly as he sees so-called emerging artists pricing their art at the same level as more established painters.

But in so doing, they lose the opportunity to reach an emerging group of young art collectors who would love to buy, but cannot afford their peers’ works of art.

Noting that on the opening night of Leo’s exhibition, the AF gallery was full of that sort of youthful crowd.

Yet few were able to put a red sticker on paintings they would have bought if the price tag had been more affordable.

Leo fear of outside


Courdent wasn’t simply speaking to Leo. He was observing what he had seen in other African art centres, as in Lagos or Johannesburg where he had observed brilliant African artists selling their art at prices that their public could easily afford.

He said they saw no shame in keeping their prices low.

“Every artist would like to go home at the end of their exhibition with all of their artwork sold,” Courdent told BDLife.

But as long as younger artists try to follow the pricing of the galleries, they do no service to themselves.

He suggested that there is need for further discussion on the subject of valuation. Harsita Waters, Director of Cultural Programs at AF told Leo that such a conversation could be scheduled in March.

For now, Leo will be available on the final day of his show on January 30, to talk to people about his art.

“I’m just happy to have gotten my work out there for the public to see,” he said, still speaking as the shy guy who’s comfortable keeping a low profile.

Meanwhile, Leo’s whole show is an evocative expression of feelings and emotions.

“All of the portraits in this show are autobiographic,” Leo tells BDLife. Surprisingly, this is not what one will see instantaneously as you walk through the ground floor gallery.

“Everything is revealed through the eyes,” he says, offering us the key to understanding what he had in mind when he was creating these obliquely- shaped entities that he explains are meant to represent human heads, necks and bodies.

Leo crowned


One has to appreciate the wildness of his vision since none of his body parts have any correlation with human forms.

What they do express are Leo’s emotional responses to moody moments of everything from anguish, revenge, fear, and alienation, to joy, indecision, anticipation, and hope.

All of these feelings are expressed through Leo’s paintings. What is fascinating about them is that however oblique his heads may seem, if one takes a little time to contemplate them, one can feel those moody emotions.

There’s an evocative power and depth to his art which is probably why he was welcomed to exhibit at Alliance Francaise in its spirit of appreciation of and openness to supporting fresh new talent.

Most of the works in this show are painted with acrylics (and occasionally oils) and applied to all sizes of canvas with everything from his hands and fingertips to brushes, dry and wet cloth, and spray bottles (as opposed to spray paint).

Each piece takes him closer to achieving his goal for 2023, which is to complete 100 paintings in his ‘Portraits of being alive” series.

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