Beatrice Wanjiku is an abstract painter whose art speaks volumes. It’s only that hers is a language of colour and movement, shape, shades and hues that reflect her mood of the moment.
Her colours reflect a vocabulary of feelings, which for the longest time have been the colour of the darkest night. They’ve seemed shaped in shadows suggestive of despair, be it with the world or the realm of her own psyche or both.
Yet the darker her works have got in the past few years, the more they’ve appealed to those who see her art as a sort of abstract thermometer measuring the world’s diminished light, warmth and love.
Personally, that period of Beatrice’s paintings left me cold, as cold as I felt her art expressed loss and loneliness and an alienation that apparently is shared by a myriad of souls who feel starved for simple things like hope and faith and genuine affection.
Her art is especially popular in the West where beauty in art is less valued than its emotional power and depth. Beatrice’s works convey intense emotional depth of feeling. They speak to lonely hearts as well as to visionaries who understand that she has tapped into a mood that transcends local likes or dislikes.
She’s an African artist who’s got a global vision and voice that resounds the region’s crying need for retribution and reparations for all that has been stolen from the continent over centuries.
Walter Rodney wrote ‘‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’’ nearly a half century ago, but few African artists have produced works that convey as painful a picture as the Guyanese historian painted in his book. But Beatrice has.
That is, she has done so up until now when her vision seems to have morphed dramatically. In her current exhibition at One Off Gallery in Nairobi, Beatrice reveals the side of herself that I know best, the Bea who is more playful and able to see the irony of living in the light while dwelling on the dark.
The title of her current work is ‘Mourning a Memory’, the irony being that the memory to be mourned is what she is clearly leaving behind, namely that deeply darkened path. What’s even more ironic is that her works in this show seem almost celebratory not mournful.
Just take one of her recent series. It’s called ‘A Fragment of Ourselves Returning’, the emphasis being on ‘returning’, coming back to a feeling of wholeness. What’s more, there’s a lightening in her work, both visually and psychologically.
The black is still there but there’s an intermingling with a soft pastel hue. There is even one in the series that’s flaming red with barely a touch of black. And at the centre of the visage, that pastel hue veritably glows, lighting up the entire figure at the heart of the work.
What’s amazing is that in almost every piece in the exhibition, there seems to be a central light which might represent a soul, or simply a renewed sense of hope. It’s even apparent in another one of her recent series, this one entitled ‘Resume your flesh and form’. Beatrice is still making powerful statements with her art, only that she’s shifted towards the light over darkness, towards possibility over despair, and to a sense of renewal that is definitely new.
The other common denominator in all of her current works at One Off is the feeling of movement that reflects not just a sense of possibility but of progression. In several pieces her figures actually seem to be waking up. Even the image of what looks like a child holding onto what could be a blanket (or is it a sleeping person?), the child seems on the move.
And even with one work called ‘In want of all things’, where the figure seems to be in repose, lying flat on his back (or possibly doing a yoga pose, balancing upside down), the central torso looks alive with brilliant colours churning under the skin.
If Beatrice’s previous works have spoken volumes visually, this current show explains that she’s still got powerful emotions to convey, only now, a darkness seems to have lifted and she has a different set of psychic concerns.
More hopeful certainly, but then, a work like ‘Aches of Ceaseless Divining’ reveals that Bea hasn’t stopped exploring new realms, wants and desires. She’s still passionate about painting, but also about living and finally putting those dark memories to rest.