How much more can Michael Soi tell us about Sex in the City 5 that he hasn’t already shared in the last four iterations of the same topic?
As it turns out, quite a lot as we discovered last Wednesday, February 15, when we slipped into the Alliance Francaise exhibition just before the crowds came in for Michael’s and Thom Ogonga’s joint celebration of the stories they have eye-witnessed in the shadier sides of Nairobi.
Some of them must be drawn from hearsay since they are quite intimate. But no matter how graphic Michael’s stories get about the girls that entertain the guys at night when men’s wives and girlfriends are not around, he never quite crosses the borderline between pornographic and evocative.
One always knows that Michael’s visual stories are illustrative of what’s really going on in certain circles of the city. But whether explicit as when guys are only at the flirting stage, as in the painting entitled, Economics of Love 3, or when the scenes are more explicit about the things men wouldn’t want their wives to know either way, Michael handles his scenes with a touch of humour and irony.
One thing that I believe is new is that several of his paintings contain full conversations (using Kiswahili and English).
In Economics of Love 3, there are five people apparently seated at the same bar. At one end, there’s a chubby white woman being embraced by a young African guy with dreadlocks. She speaks to him, ‘So you fancy me?’ She asks as he apparently fondles her breast.
‘Yes’, he responds in letters that look like a Japanese Yen, a Euro sign, and an ‘S’ with a line through it so it looks like an American dollar sign. Obviously, the lad is seeing money to be made in this potentially amorous exchange.
And on the other side of the young rastaman is an African woman, possibly a sex worker who doesn’t appreciate the white woman’s competition.
She makes a disgusted noise, ‘Mscheew’. But next to her are two more young guys who are jealous of rastaman for grabbing the white woman aka Ms money bags. “Lucky chap” says one. “Yup” says the other.
At times I hear people suggest that Michael Soi is more of a cartoonist than a visual artist. But I don’t know why he can't be both. He’s not the first artist to include written words in his art. But in his case, I haven’t ever seen him carry on wordy conversations in his paintings before.
But he has often painted images of young African men with their white ‘Visa” girlfriends. The girls don’t seem to have a clue that they are being used. But then there is probably some kind of quid pro quo in which she also benefits somehow.
Either way, his art is illustrative of that kind of mutual exploitation in which neither side seems to feel exploited in the least.
She may well be his passport to the West, but he is also her nightly comfort, a guy who gives her the attention no man may give her back home.
Michael places no judgement on any of the characters he represents, not in this show at least. In the past, his satirical paintings have stirred the ire of the people he lampoons.
That was the case with his series on the Chinese in Africa.
His focus in the Chinese in Africa series was essentially the re-colonisation of the continent by China, and his illustrations were graphic and their message was quite clear.
So much so that it is said a contingent of Chinese came to his studio and demanded—or strongly suggested—that he stop painting about them.
I don’t know exactly Michael’s response but he wasn’t going to be bullied or censored or scared by their words, even if there was an implicit threat in them.
Meanwhile, Thom Ogonga paints many of the same women as Michael, it would seem. But Thom is more subtle and gentlemanly.
He’s never as explicit as his partner pal. Nor are his ladies undressed. That’s a big difference between them since Michael loves to create super-shapely ladies with big bottoms and breasts, often with very little on except a thong or a skin-tight, low-cut dress.
But the two complement each other well as they share their stories of sex in the city for the fifth time.