In the same way one often hears newcomers to the art world ask what made Pablo Picasso such a global celebrity in the 20th century (realm of modern art), one may also want to know what’s made German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans an international phenomenon in the 21st century world of contemporary art.
Is it because both are masters of self-promotion or because they’re explorers and experimenters in their chosen fields of fine art? Are they genuine innovators and fine artists or is it just that they’re prolific, ever-innovating and impossible to ignore?
Could it also be that both have been keen observers of the political, cultural and social trends and reacted to them passionately through their art?
In other words, they’ve recognised that their art and the arts generally have the capacity to move mountains and affect change in the world’s socio-political psyche.
Picasso certainly did with his painting of Guernica, and Tillmans has done it with his anti-Brexit campaign.
Tillmans is in Nairobi on the third leg of a nine-country Africa tour, having just come from Kinshasa and Lusaka. The London-based German-born self-identified European photographer came with an entourage which assisted him in mounting more than 200 photographs of all sizes, colours and genres, from reportage and portraiture to abstraction and almost painterly sorts of still life.
With support from the German Institute for International and Cultural Relations, Tillmans’ multifaceted exhibition also includes video projections, music, publications and sculptural objects, all of which constitute the show he’s entitled Fragile.
In fact, his diverse assembly of art is so large that Goethe Institute (which played host to Tillmans and his team throughout his dozen-day stay in Kenya) had to negotiate with other cultural institutes in order to display all of his art.
Tillmans’ Fragile show is still up for the viewing at the GoDown Art Centre and Circle Art Gallery. It’s well worth visiting, especially at the GoDown where there’s sufficient space to do justice to the depth and rich complexity of his photographic art.
Tillmans has won a multitude of awards, most surprising and prestigious of which is the Turner Prize which normally goes to a Briton.
But he may have won this important prize in part because he identifies not in narrow nationalistic terms, but as a European and citizen of the world.