‘Kesho Africa’, an exhibition of paintings and photography that just opened at Alliance Francaise in Nairobi is also subtitled ‘Then and now’ making past, present and future important reference points in the artworks.
Yet whichever time-frame the eight artists in the show chose to represent, their works feel less fixed and more fluid than to be stuck in any one period in time. What is more, their art seems transcendent than terrestrial, more imaginative than earthbound.
According to the exhibition’s curators, Celestine Wamiru and Stephen Nderitu, founders of Karakana, the concepts that set the criteria for selecting these 35 artworks relate to issues of African identity and culture.
“African spiritualism, Afro-Futurism and Africa’s lost history” are central themes that have fuelled these artists’ imagination, according to Celeste. Best known for being Kenya’s first female editorial cartoonist, Celeste now works with her former University of Nairobi classmate Stephen at Karakana, the artist-run ‘think tank’ promoting all sorts of local arts initiatives.
For artists Chela Cherwon, Native Nairobi, Blaine29, Ango Makau, and Saka Arts, painting is what they bring to Kesho Africa. Meanwhile, Stephen Ogallo, Ian Kiplimo and James Gikonyo employ photography mixed with painting as their main mode of participation.
All eight millennials seem more inclined to focus on the present and future than the past in this show. In fact, Afro-futurism which is closely correlated to Afro-surrealism seem to be the dominant genres that run through the exhibition. Not that Afro-futurism cannot also embrace the past and present.
But the eight clearly did not feel confined by a finite sense of time. Instead, there is more implicit attention given to ‘African spiritualism’ and an underlying current of creativity that is essentially African.
Nonetheless, at the show’s opening night, there were hints of past cultural practices in Chela’s choice to paint people’s faces in a sort of scarified style, the allusion being to the scarification that some pre-colonial communities practised. People stood in line that night for the chance to be ‘scarified’ (with washable body paint) at the hand of Chela.
Native’s painting of a traditional ‘medicine woman’ pays tribute to the Suri people of Ethiopia who blended reverence for both soul and soil, including the forest plants and flowers that historically were said to have healing effect.
Blaine29’s colourful portraits also seem to be about traditional medicine men. And yet her use of colour feels almost psychedelic. And one of her men’s eyes look like they’ve got sharpened daggers exploding from their eyes. If that doesn’t sound ‘African surreal’, I don’t know how it can be classified.
Mix of themes
Many of the artworks in ‘Kesho Africa’ reflect this kind of eclectic mix of themes. For instance, photographer James Gikonyo’s ‘Sage’ does what a few of the other artists do: allude to the past, using technology of the present to create an image that is at once futuristic and surreal.
‘Sage’ is draped in a leopard cape, wearing an ‘Afro’ hairstyle and holding an orb that connects her with electrified superpower that enables her to tune into unfathomable frequencies and knowledge.
The electrified superpower is magnified in her dazzling eyes and is also visible on her arm where she has a holographic man in miniature (from who-knows-where) standing prepared to communicate with her.
All the photographers are inclined to create similarly surrealistic images. For instance, Ian Kiplimo has created several portraits of beautiful young people — both women and men -covered in body art and coiffed in well-wrapped African textiles.
Meanwhile, along the same AF wall, Gikonyo, working with Sogallo came up with an ‘Ubuntu’ portrait of a half-naked (from the waist up) warrior surrounded by many dismembered hands, all reaching out to touch the man. It’s an unsettling (Photoshopped) image. But it’s also got a hypnotic effect.
Sogallo has also brought several intricate line drawings to the show. One, called ‘Genesis’, is dense with intricate lines but also filled with haunting African masks, the kind that inspired Western modern artists like Picasso, Matisse and Braque.
Sogallo’s deftly delineated map of Africa is also an affirmation of what this show represents. So does Chela’s painting called ‘African Essence’, a work that reveals the crux of what Karakana apparently wanted to encourage, which is art that expresses appreciation of what Celeste calls ‘African spiritualism’.
Finally, one way that spirituality is expressed is through the musical imagery that Joseph ‘Ango’ Makau creates in his paintings of instruments, most of which he personally plays. But even these have a semiabstract style bordering on the surreal.