While Covid-19 has been wreaking havoc on millions of lives and livelihoods all over the world, the stealthy virus has not managed to kill the creative impulse of scores of Kenyan and other African artists.
Proof of their resilience is currently online and on display at the One Off Art Gallery in a group exhibition entitled simply ‘Covid 19 – Social Distancing.’
The showcase has something of a serendipitous feel to it since it was only a few months back (when it became clear the pandemic wasn’t disappearing overnight) that One Off’s founding gallerist, Carol Lees asked artists online to take the theme and run with it.
The show has works by more than 40 artists, most of whom are Kenyans but as the call was accessible to all, Carol got responses from Nigerians, Britons, and other East Africans.
The work has come in a myriad of forms, media, and topics, mostly related either directly or tangentially to the theme of the viral pandemic.
A few artists recycled old imagery and simply added a mask to artwork they had already conceived. Occasionally, the masking was tastefully done, as with the masked bride by Margaret Njeri and the mother and child by Esau Osomo. Nonetheless, the clichéd effect is still inescapable.
But then there are wildly original works in the show. Like the fastidiously multicoloured lungs hanging out (at arm’s length) on a clothesline, as if Ugandan artist Mark Kassi is giving greater dignity to the dead than are the data dished out daily in the form of horrifying statistics.
There’s little love expressed in the exhibition apart from Musah Mwakelemu’s celebratory ‘Triumph of love (in the pandemic).’
Otherwise, the agony of the isolation imposed by the self-quarantining is well conveyed in works by Waweru Muturi and David Kipkoech whose solitary cell dangles in space without reference to time or place.
Simon Muriithi takes a slightly different approach to the lockdown although he too interprets the boxed-in character of the Covid-19 crisis.
In contrast, several artists illustrate the 'business-as-usual' approach of peasant survivors living on the edge and having no recourse but to head to the market to sell their wares. Esther Mukuhi's women are a case in point.
Those who've chosen to illustrate social distancing are few, but the masked figures of Munene Kariithi, Richard Kimathi, and Rashid Diab offer essential examples of what is required of the public if we seriously mean to lick the virus.
In contrast, John Mutahi's canvas is overcrowded with faces, illustrating a kind of hell that’s likely to leave those characters testing positive for the virus.
The danger, of course, comes in the form of invisible aerial droplets that seem to be the subject matter of paintings by Churchill Ongere and Leo Coimbro. Their pieces are emblematic of the issue that the global multitude doesn't seem to understand but must do eventually. And that is these droplets (painted as dots, bubbles or balloons) are infectious killers which may be lurking anywhere.
The other point that artists examine in this Covid-19 show is the mental toll that the lockdown has taken on the public. One of the clear illustrations of what the virus can do to one’s mind is Wallace Juma’s painting of a head which seems to be split open as if mental shrapnel has affected the man's mind.
Yet this exhibition is not only about agony and despair. Works by Paul Kidero and David Marrian both reveal the restorative nature of the open air. Kidero’s solitary man walks serenely by the sea while Marrian's chapel reflects some remote yet blissful region of natural beauty.
Two works by Sophie Walbeoffe extend the celebration of nature as her birds and tree are joyfully unaffected by the virus. Rather, they reflect what happened during the first wave of the pandemic when people willingly went into lockdown and indigenous wildlife emerged after years of invisibility.
Finally, referring back to the eclectic, the gallery placed no restrictions on participation or media that artists might employ.
As such, this show (which will be at the Gallery until August 23) features everything from mixed media, acrylic paints, and prints to photography, digital art, and sculpture. It also presents both veterans and newcomers at the gallery.