Willie Wambugu returns with fine material culture goodies

 William Wambugu's shadow portrait during his solo show at Red Hill Gallery on June 2, 2024.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

Willie Wambugu is one of those rare artists who arrives on the Kenyan arts scene like a rocket that blasts off with several impressive exhibitions. But then, like a rocket whose take off looks perfect, a sure-fired success, it suddenly, has engine problems, falls off course, and finally disappears.

Fortunately, Willie has returned with his first solo exhibition in nearly a decade at the Red Hill Gallery. He retains his humble demure, still modest, soft-spoken, and almost shy; although he is happy to tell where he has been. He’s taken up the role of single dad to a new-born son. And prior to that, he’d been grieving for his dearly loved mom.

What brought him out of his artistic hibernation was a simple phone call. It was from Peterson Kamwathi who he’d met through a mutual friend, after which he had attended printmaking workshops run by Kamwathi, and gotten close in the process.

Peterson encouraged him to come back into the arts scene where there’s a lot happening. His words inspired Willie to get back to work artistically. The result is the exhibition at Red Hill, featuring three series of multimedia drawings in pen and ink on paper with several of Willie’s 14 works also touched with graphite and charcoal. The show is named after the series, Veternary, Shadow and Post-Covid.

As it turns out, whichever hand tool Willie has drawn reveals that he had lost none of his love for drawing material culture, items that he has seen at close range and merit his attention. They are what attracted the Italian impresario Samantha to Willie’s drawings in the first place.

I recall how she had gotten a peek at his personal spiral note pad which was filled with eclectic items. Each one had been meticulously drawn in lines that swerved and curved with an attention to detail that was stunning for all the energy one could feel exuding from each object he had drawn. It was that notebook that became the basis for his first exhibition which she held in her garage which she’d transformed into a gallery. After that he had several more exhibitions, including two at Red Hill. Then the Italian curator took his art to exhibit in her Roots Gallery in Brussels, Belgium.

William Wambugu's veterinary tool for trimming cow horn. 

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

It wasn’t too long thereafter that Willie disappeared from the local art scene. But with his return we see that he’s retained many of the qualities, concerns, and styles of drawing that we had previously seen and found so intriguing and unique. We now see the same attention to meticulous detail and to figurative drawing that reflects an intensity of energy that doesn’t need adrenaline or caffeine to fuel his perspective on the items he draws at close range.

So where did he begin? It was with his brother’s hand tools. A veterinarian by profession, Willie’s brother was happy to give his much younger sibling access to his vet tools. Each one has a specific function, such as his horn cutter.

Initially, many of the shapes he has drawn seem almost semi-abstract, especially as I don’t own a cow, bull, or goat so I’ve never seen a horn cutter before. But Willie assures me, as we speak at his Red Hill opening, that his brother sees farmers and their cattle come to see him every day.

“It’s just the same way women go to the salon to have their nails trimmed and polished, so the farmers come to the vet to give their animals relief,” Willie explains to the BD Life.

William Wambugu's shadow portrait at Red Hill Gallery on June 2, 2024. 

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

In that series, I found the drawing of what Willie sais is a tray filled with an assortment of randomly displayed Vet’s tools most appealing and evocative. Definitely a semi-abstract work if you have no familiarity with these objects. Otherwise, they are almost hyper-realistic to one who understands Willie’s way of drawing.

His Shadow series reinforces my view that Willie draws things most effectively that are in his proximity. And what could be closer to one’s self than their shadow?

“I was walking down the street one sunny day and noticed this thing on the road that seemed to be following me. Then I realised that it was my shadow. So I took a snapshot of it with my phone and decided to draw it,” says Willie.

Finally, Willie’s most recent Post-Covid series contains self-portraits (like his Shadow series), only now he’s introduced collage into his style of ‘drawing’ that enhances the beauty of his art while retaining his unique approach to material culture.

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