Margaret Njeri Ngigi had been through a ‘dark patch’ while preparing for her first solo exhibition at One Off Art Gallery, which opened late last month and just recently closed.
“I’d lost many friends and loved ones, and times were tough,” Njeri told the BDLife at the opening.
That is how she came up with the cryptic title, “Forever is not ours” and created a series of portraits which are meant to signal Njeri’s mindset of mortality.
Yet the beauty of her art is that it can be interpreted in different ways. For instance, I saw her portraits in a more positive light.
The fact that she painted all of her models with black and blue-black paint suggested to me something more like ‘Black power’ and the affirmation of black beauty and strength.
Yet there is no doubt that her portraits have an enigmatic expression and pose which allow for Njeri’s more recent interpretation to hold up as well.
On the last day of her show, she held an Artist Talk in which she discussed her ideas with everyone who came to listen.
She had meant for her models to be ethereal spirits (or “ghosts”) who had passed through death and mortality, or at least had moved on into an afterlife that was no longer mortal.
Nonetheless, they are observant of the humans, she said. That is why her spirits’ eyes seem to be so watchful and wide-eyed.
By accentuating their open eyes, they seem to be staring and daring, or is it demanding that you pay attention to what you have at the moment, which is your life.
Any which way you wish to look at her portraits, as either mortal or immortal, there is no doubt that they are provocative.
For the artist was deliberate in her creative process. Having studied both painting and photography (as well as filmmaking), she employed them both in her mixed media art which she considers to be ‘fine art photography’.
First, she had to find seven individuals who didn’t mind having their bodies become Njeri’s canvas on which she planned to paint the blackest black on their skins.
The one exception was their eyelids which in stark contrast are pearly white.
“I did a bit of photoshopping on their eyes,” she confessed, in hopes that her viewers might feel there was something uncanny, unsettling about these beings.
But it might require a bold leap of faith to see that they are no longer human, as Njeri suggested.
The other element of her art that seemed to defy her own assessment that it reflected her primary concern with death and mortality is the white oval disk that appears in every one of her paintings.
Acknowledging that the white disk seemed to symbolise a human heart, Njeri concurred. The disk definitely looked like a life force of some sort. In every portrait, it looked vibrant, radiant, and strong.
So perhaps this is what she meant in the blurb at the front of her catalogue, when she wrote, “Ultimately, my goal is to explore and understand the mysteries of life and death.”
When asked if she could cite any specific artists who had inspired her, Njeri was quick to respond that the South African photographer Zanele Muholi was a definite source of inspiration for her.
Like her, Muholi works in black and white, but Njeri has chosen to occasionally adorn her black images with other colours. However, conceptually their art has evolved in strikingly divergent ways.
Njeri has a diploma in fine art from Kenyatta University and a Bachelor’s degree in Film Production and Direction from the United States International University.
But it was the short course that she took in photography that has had the most enduring impact on the direction she wants to go artistically.
For instance, it’s her photography that won her awards as in her 2022 winning of the East African Photography Award and the 2020 nomination for the Photo London Emerging Photographer of the Year award.
She has exhibited extensively overseas, especially in Art Fairs, several held in Basel, Switzerland and London, UK. She has also had solo exhibitions in London, including one featuring her ‘Murky Waters’ series which was curated by Doyle Wham Art Gallery.
In addition to exhibiting through the London gallery, she also works with several others, including the AKKA Project in UAE and One-Off Contemporary Art Gallery.