Art Narrating Conflict at Kobo Trust

Eltayeb Dawelbait with his ‘Man vs Man’ mixed media paintings. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
Eltayeb Dawelbait with his ‘Man vs Man’ mixed media paintings. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

GravitArt is an online gallery that occasionally mounts pop-up exhibitions. And when it does, those shows are thought-provoking and extraordinary. ‘Conflicts in the Narrative’ which opened last Friday night at Kobo Trust is no exception.

Veronica Paradinas Duro has stamped her own iteration on the works of a dozen East African artists, most of whom are Kenyan. The rest come from either Sudan or Ethiopia.

All 12 come from different backgrounds, create works that are also diverse. The one thing they have in common is the taste of Veronica, the founder and curator of GravitArt.

She ‘constructed’ the show systematically, breaking it down into five themes, all subtitled under her overarching trope of ‘Conflicts in the Narrative.’ The conflicts, of course, are all man-made: man against self, against man, man against nature, against technology and against society at large.

Her construction is a fascinating one. But what she seems to assume is that visual art, be it a painting, print, sculpture or installation invariably contains a narrative and has a story to tell.

What we understand is that not all art has that much intrinsic meaning. It may have been created simply to be ‘art for art’s sake’, art as a decorative work, or art as a commodity to sell. Veronica resolves this issue, however.

She attributes a narrative to the paintings, sculptures or installations that she’s included in her show.

Thus, Peter Elungat may not have been thinking about the conflict between man and nature when he painted his ‘Mushroom, Me and Red’. But it’s a work that arrests you as you walk into Kobo’s vast gallery space. It compels you to ask, when did Elungat did take this radical turn away from his former figurative style and towards a more dramatic semi-abstract form of expression?

Veronica chose Elungat’s piece to be in the exhibition after he’d completed the work. That was the case for virtually all 24 works in the show.

The Spanish artist-architect went all around Nairobi and outside the country as well to find artworks that she felt fit into her vision as well as into the narratives that she attributes to the works.

For instance, selecting Dennis Muraguri’s seven-foot tall ‘Guzzler Flow’ and placing it in the ‘man versus technology’ wing of the show makes a lot of sense.
The artist assembled a wide array of mechanical parts to create a form that looks cyborg, meaning partly human and partly machine-like.

Similarly, Lemok Tompoika uses technology to create ‘Of Gods I & III’. He does so by combining digital art with painting to produce zombie-like characters.

It was also ingenious for Veronica to place Kevin Oduor’s two-piece ‘Existence’ sculpture in the ‘man versus self’ side of the show since the work seems very personal.

It’s almost like a semi-abstract self-portrait since the artist, like the sculpture is missing a limb. Yet the artwork has ‘Existence’.

The Ethiopian painter Tesfaye Bekele also has a physical challenge, so one appreciates why his beautifully coloured abstract artworks feature next to Kevin’s and are classified under ‘man versus self’.

The other painting that is well-placed, in the ‘man versus society’ group is Shabu Mwangi’s ‘Immigrants’. Shabu has previously created works on the social issue (or ‘narrative’) of immigrants, so that’s a perfect fit.

One might not say the same for Paul Onditi’s paintings. They feature Smokey, his alienated ‘everyman’ who often appears in his art, usually adrift, floating above a blurred landscape that looks less like nature and more like urban morass.

But there’s no need to quibble. Art is all about subjective interpretation: the curator sees the landscape reflecting ‘man (meaning Smokey) versus nature’.
Finally, Veronica shapes the narrative of artworks by Eltayeb Dawelbait and Onyis Martin as being reflective of ‘man versus man.’

It works insofar as both artists created images of men: Eltayeb’s as profiles, Onyis’s as men in motion. Both could be classed as man versus self. But Veronica’s approach is refined, effective and exquisitely hung.

One needs to get to Kobo to see the way GravitArt’s show infuses marvellous meaning into East African art.