Michael Soi is a Kenyan artist that the public tends to either love or love to hate.
The lovers of Soi’s artwork are in the majority. For who cannot love his playful caricatures and almost cartoonlike portraits of Nairobi’s nightlife. His bar scenes are filled with colourful characters having fun although not necessarily in the most innocent of ways. But even his scenes of seduction are playful and agreeable to all parties involved.
Those who don’t love Soi’s art tend to read too much naughtiness into it. The artist is a satirist making fun of human foibles and frailties.
Soi paints what he sees although his art isn’t exactly realism. It’s more like social realism in that his subject-matter is all about society with a specific focus on Nairobi club life. However, in his current exhibition, running through January 10 at Nairobi’s Circle Art Gallery, entitled ‘Heaven can Wait’, Soi spends less time exploring club life. But Soi’s artwork has never been exclusively about life in the bars and the discos. He has also had a political edge that often finds its way into his work. It can be found at Circle Art in pieces like ‘Mr Headmaster’ and ‘Everyone Loves Africa’.
‘Mr Headmaster’ reveals a man dressed in a suit but climbing on the back of a large woman with a beer clutched firmly in hand. He’s holding the woman just as tightly. But he’s surrounded by gapping eyes of children dressed in school uniforms, taking note of their head teacher’s out-of-control conduct.
The other overtly political piece in his latest solo show is ‘Everyone Love Africa’. In the past, he’s created an extensive body of work around the theme, ‘China Loves Africa’. But in this piece, he’s not only observing one superpower moving in on Africa. ‘Everyone’ in this case is represented by four grabby hands, each painted with a superpower flag and reaching out towards Africa.
There are also four small circles hovering between the hands, as if to say it’s not just the superpowers, EU and the rest, reaching in toward the region. It’s also lesser powers involved in the restaging of the 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, only with cooler, more calculating hands.
Otherwise, the piece that I found the funniest in Soi’s show (it made me laugh out loud!) is the one he calls ‘Married People’. Soi’s art is rarely subtle. He’s tuned into what really happens to human beings, be they sex workers prepared to get to work in ‘Thursday Night Live’ or ‘Monday Morning’ where the man is so hung over from the weekend, he has to be wheelbarrowed to the bus stop by the wife who is also heavy-laden with a child wrapped onto her back.
‘Married People’ portrays a husband and his wife sharing the bathroom as she shaves her armpit while he sits on the ‘can’ reaching for the toilet paper. Soi packs the whole story in a painting. These two are no longer in the phase of wedlock known as romantic love. They are now more like roommates who must endure one another’s earthy habits and essential toiletries.
Soi only has 18 pieces in ‘Heaven can Wait’ but everyone has multiple tales to tell. And while quite a few have already sold, it’s still worth a trip to see them all, be they sold or not, at Circle Art.
By the way, for your calendar, Circle’s Art Auction East Africa will take place March 6, 2020 at Radisson Blu.