Nudes are what people look at every day.
So inherently there’s nothing lewd or distasteful about the nude.
Many artists throughout history have appreciated the beauty of the human form and represented it in paintings, sculptures, motion pictures and even in great literature.
Which is why no one needed to miss the group exhibition on The Nude that just closed at One Off Gallery.
Featuring a wide range of works by some of Kenya’s most accomplished artists, the nudes range from being realistic and quite explicit to being semi-abstract, satirical and beautifully sensitive as well.
For instance, the sketched drawings by Timothy Brooke are evocative yet discrete and gracefully rendered while those of Ehoodi Kichapi are bold and broad-stroked; his women seemed almost militant, aggressive and practically ferocious.
Michael Soi’s nudes seem solicitous, yet their presence in his painting says as much about sexual double standards in Kenya as it does about the hypocrisy of those who preach moral rectitude while simultaneously indulging their lustful appetites.
In contrast, it’s Patrick Mukabi’s nudes who seem most proud of their fully-featured fleshy bodies.
Their gaze is direct and unashamed. And unlike nearly all the other nudes in this fascinating show, Patrick’s women seem unconcerned about being represented for who and what they are, a plus-size that runs counter to the current Western standards of what constitutes a beautiful (read ‘sleek and slender’) body.
So while Patrick’s women are presented in forward frontal poses, unlike most of the other nudes represented in the One Off show, there is one exception. It’s also the only set of male nudes on display and they are by Mercy Kagia, a relatively new face on the ebullient Kenyan arts scene.
Mercy’s men seem to look at us eye to eye. And whether that’s because men are more confident about their bodies, Mercy’s drawings are refreshing precisely because most male artists seem only to be inspired by the female form, and most female artists apparently have other preoccupations besides the male nude.
In any case, most of the portraits of nudes in One Off’s show are rare and wonderful. I believe they are also setting a precedent since I can’t recall Nairobi ever having a group exhibition made up of all nudes ever before.
Of course, we have seen Soi’s, Mukabi’s and Brooke’s nudes in the past, but they have always been part of larger themed shows.
In fact, Mukabi has pioneered painting portraits of the male nude which he first exhibited back in 2008, following the country’s post-election violence.
His nudes were making a statement about man as animal impelled by instincts that led to the horrors of those troubling and traumatising times.
The One Off show is far less political than Mukabi’s, but that makes it no less artful, effective and aesthetically attractive.
Take for instance, Nadia Kisseleva’s beautiful back-sided nudes which are tasteful yet sensual, gracefully contoured and delicately coloured.
Yet Soi’s searing social commentary is never far from his portraiture. Often described as a visual storyteller, his work at One Off (the one I was able to see) was clearly critiquing the Christian clergy who don’t seem to practice what they preach.
And again Mercy’s portraits of male nudes convey a feminist fearlessness that reveals her willingness to challenge social conventions.
Coincidentally, she is the only female artist whose works appear in ‘‘The Nude.’’
In the meantime, as of tomorrow, One Off will host an exhibition of paintings by Olivia Pendergast entitled ‘‘Kenyan Atmospherics.’’
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