Visual Arts

Shabu, the artist who paints truth not beauty

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Shabu Mwangi's 'Freedom in Illusion ' painting at Gravitart in Westlands. NMG PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

Shabu Mwangi does not pretend to care about using his art to paint beautiful pictures. Beauty is not even an issue for this award-winning artist from Nairobi's Lunga Lunga.

“I paint to liberate,” he told the curator of his current solo exhibition at Gravitart in Westlands, Nairobi, Veronica Dura.

“I am not painting for beauty's sake. I am painting to start a conversation,” he explained to her before the opening of his exhibition entitled ‘Winter Memories’ on November 5.

The conversation that Shabu started years ago and continues even now relates to the injustice of social inequality and the structures that sustain and maintain that injustice.

Sensitive to the struggles of the poor and oppressed, Shabu’s art interrogates issues that affect them directly. But not just the obvious concerns for hunger and unemployment.

His vision penetrates political and historical problems to explore the hidden ramifications left behind by colonialism and the capitalist system that propelled it.

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Shabu Mwangi's 'Winter Memories' painting at Gravitart in Westlands, Nairobi on November 14, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

For example, a work like ‘The Surrogates’ paints a raw portrait of two ugly men who are equivalent to ‘Home Guards’ who served as loyal African stand-ins for the coloniser.

So, for Shabu, while colonialism may be officially dead and gone, he sees its continuation in surrogates who still serve foreign interests over those of their people.

One thing the surrogates are meant to do is keep a lid on public dissent. This is where a work like ‘Motion in Misinformation’ comes in.

Shabu seems to understand the role that media (including social media) can play in distracting, distorting, and deluding the public into believing untruths and thus losing sight of their role in affecting social change.

One of the central untruths that Shabu challenges is that no one can change the status quo. Yet social change is exactly what Shabu’s art is all about. He is like a lightning rod, electrifying and exposing the plight of the poor.

It is evident in works like ‘Waiting in Agony’ and ‘State of Agony’, which portray tragic yet impactful figures, faces that fascinate not for their beauty but for their emotional resonance.

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Shabu Mwangi's 'The Surrogates' painting at Gravitart in Westlands. NMG PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

One might be revolted by some of Shabu’s art, yet that in itself reveals how powerful are the emotions emanating from his imagery.

One such painting that might be difficult to see is ‘Unwrapped self’ since the ‘unwrapped’ face reveals a bloody image that is red, raw, and deeply unsettling. It is as if he dares you to look and live with the reality that the pain of poverty is an experience that most people cannot walk away from.

Giving ‘a voice to the voiceless, Shabu created several paintings marked with bright red lines. They are lines that signify the boundaries beyond which the poor and oppressed are not meant to trespass.

One can see them in Shabu’s most recent work entitled ‘Winter Memories’. In it, a mother and child are positioned behind several red lines, all of which are indicators for them to stay where they are. They are supposedly stuck.

There is also a red line through another one of his recent paintings entitled ‘Supreme Cages’ which provides the clearest cue. The poor and oppressed are encaged in their poverty and require a radical change, possibly even a revolution.

One of the most provocative political statements that Shabu makes is in the piece, ‘Flags that bleed’.

“His point being that whenever men make flags, wars tend to follow,” says Veronica. The beneficiaries of those wars might be found in his mixed media piece entitled ‘Old and Power’.

Three old men are seated in a board room where ground-breaking decisions are made. This portrait of power elites was painted in 2017, five years before his ‘Dimming Stiffness’ which reveals one man wearing a crown falling off his head.

'Winter Memories' is an assemblage of nearly 30 paintings, many of which are visual metaphors for the deeply personal as well as political concerns of the artist.

But without an appreciation of Shabu’s vision, one cannot easily grasp the authentic beauty of his art. Shabu’s artistry has been recognised and lauded several times this year, first when he and the Wajukuu Art Project that he founded were invited to exhibit at the prestigious German art fair, documenta15.

Then, while still in Germany, he and Wajukuu won the Mario Bochi Award followed by the Arnold Bode Prize.