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Art

Mercy’s walking pen reveals Kenyan life

Mercy Kagia’s ‘‘Diani Duka and ‘‘Sweet Bananas’’ on paper. PHOTOS | COURTESY
Mercy Kagia’s ‘‘Diani Duka and ‘‘Sweet Bananas’’ on paper. PHOTOS | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Mercy Kagia is a rare sort of visual chronicler. She’s the kind that is so charmed by the ordinary everyday lives of regular people that her greatest delight seems to be in documenting their activities and accoutrement with pen and ink on plain paper.

More often than not, Mercy works quietly, surreptitiously in unobtrusive spaces. Sometimes she draws on paper made from rice. Other times she apparently works on paper specially made for water colour.

Occasionally, she’ll use a brush to add a dab or two of colour as she did when painting the ‘clean water’ tanker an aquatic shade of blue. Or when she gave her Kisumu Municipal Market a leafy green vine. Or touched the helmets of two motorcycle taxi drivers with a sunny yellow hue.

But more often than not, it would seem it’s the dark, thin lines, shapely swirling curves and contours of all that she sees in her own daily journeys that seem to interest Mercy the most.

In her one-woman exhibition that’s currently on at Polka Dot Gallery, the artist is to be found “Taking My Pen for a Walk.”

So while her pen is Mercy’s primary means of expression, it’s her walking all around Kenya, chronicling what she’s seen, that’s the biggest bonus in what she’s brought to this enchanting exhibition.

But it’s not only people and their daily practices that have appealed to Mercy in this show. Certainly she’s still intrigued with boda boda taxi drivers and mama mbogas selling their wares in the open air, be they fruits, vegetables or mitumba clothes.

Nudes in tasteful poses also occupy one wall at Polka Dot, reflecting Mercy’s time teaching Life Drawing over the last many months.

But what’s equally intriguing about her ‘walking pen’ this time round is that she’s branched out spatially and drawn all the way from Diani Beach to Lake Naivasha and the Aberdares to Lake Victoria.

Along the way, she’s drawn everything from whispering palms to water tankers, cattle obstructing traffic outside The Hub and camels trekking gracefully on Diani beach.

With her landscapes, she’s taken slightly more interest in water colour as when she painting the Indian Ocean and the Galu? Beach at Diani. But personally, I’m happier with her detailed pen and ink drawings.

I particularly like Mercy’s zebra series, including the singular young ones (who look like they’re grazing in high heels), the duo, trio and family drawings of these elegant and graceful creatures whose natural beauty Mercy captures in fine black lines.

But the fact that she features several colourful still life’s in her show, including fresh fruits (like apple, pear, bananas and pawpaw) and veggies (garlic and onion) is also a treat for their simplicity, fidelity to natural colours and look, as if they’d be good enough to eat.

Mercy also has a series focused on vehicles: the retired Chevrolet taxi, old-fashioned Volkswagon Beatle, water tanker and even a lorry transporting equipment being used to repair a transformer.

But as I have a special affinity for motorcycle taxis, I’m particularly partial to Mercy’s snapshot drawing of a family of four snuggling close to their boda boda driver. In real life, they might look like an accident waiting to happen.

But the taxi man is also providing a life-affirming service to this family (the smallest might have been two) who otherwise would probably have had to walk long distances in the heat of the mid-day.

Mercy would have had to make a quick sketch of that image while the family was still in sight. But even so, she’s never at a loss for capturing the delicate details that make subtle statements about the characters in her drawings.

I don’t know if Mercy has ever been compared to Norman Rockwell, the great American artist and illustrator of ordinary everyday life among the people and places he walked with in his daily affairs.

Mercy might not find it a compliment to be compared to Rockwell. But he had a knack for drawing humble scenes that spoke louder than verbal chatter could do to reveal the secret lives of everyday people in his place and time.

To me, Mercy has a similar knack. So to have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what she and her pen have witnessed in Kenya right now is a good reason to get to Polka Dot Gallery (across from the Hub in Karen) and meet Mercy through her art.

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