Samuel Githinji just had a solo exhibition at Red Hill Gallery a year and a half ago. His second one-man show at Red Hill is currently on through September. Githinji is the only Kenyan artist (apart from Gor Suodan) to have such special treatment at the Rossler-Musch’s gallery in all the six years of its existence. So one may well wonder why they’ve been so generous to the 28-year-old artist.
The answer is plain once one walks into their spacious light-filled space and sees Githinji’s emotionally-powerful works. They’re still raw with anguished intensity, yet the title ‘Decay— Survival – Healing’ reveals a significant shift in the artist’s perspective.
For there’s no doubt that he’s deeply disturbed by the devastating effects of human beings on the planet and on their fellow beings.
It’s most apparent in his shredded tapestries which are multi-textured and clearly steeped in darkened symbolism.
The most obvious are the tattered edges at the bottom of one of the wall hangings and the tacky holes that seem to scream of decay and despair in all three large scale hangings.
Yet the images of decay are offset by subtle hints of hope, unlike anything seen in his first solo exhibition where Githinji seemed nearly overwhelmed by his sense of dread and doom.
To decipher that inkling of hope, one surely must take a bit of time with Githinji’s art to see how it manifests itself.
For me, it became evident initially when I saw that the base line of his one torn tapestry was one of his previously painted canvases which he hadn’t actually destroyed. He’d only overlaid and stitched it with pieces of a well-worn blanket and other shredded textiles picked up and tacked on for effect.
The fact that he didn’t destroy his original painting suggested that he had hidden hope that it might one day be discovered, just as the artist himself might be.
There’s speculation that in all three tapestries, there’s an inscribed outline of a self-portrait. But again, Githinji’s artistic intentions are not always plain. One feels he has much to express, only that it’s subject to interpretation.
Yet his emotional honesty is still pronounced, even when he openly writes in his brief gallery bio that his wire sculpture echoes his appreciation for those of Gor Soudan’s, another Kenyan artist who’s been exhibited at Red Hill.
In fact, it’s in his installation on another wall of the gallery that one sees the most clear-cut signs of Githinji’s emergence into light. He frankly lets his electrified energy loose, first in his headless woven-wire sculpture which is indeed reminiscent of Gor’s wire torso first seen in Loresho several years ago.
But if he’s shameless in his homage to Gor, he takes that appreciation further with a triptych of pen and ink drawings that altogether replicate the intensely interwoven lines of the wire, only in slender fine lines meticulously mirroring the three dimensional form in a 2-D horizontal pose.
Githinji actually has two installations at Red Hill. The other is less apparent since the soil and wire ‘body’ shaped at the base of his most tattered tapestry might be overlooked if not for its seeming to have mysteriously seeped out of the wall hanging, like one of those anonymous refugee corpses currently being fished out of the Mediterranean Sea.
So there’s still a grim side of Githinji that’s apparent in the current work. But in both his pencil and ink drawings, one feels the ‘struggle’ noted in his title is evident. He seems to have found one purely satisfying channel in this fine-point pen through which to convey his kinetic energy.
Another channel is obviously the wire which he’s used to weave together intricate patterns to create two complete torsos, one prone in corpse-like decay, the other upright and magnificent in its meticulously interwoven wholeness.
The other medium through which Githinji works is the needle with which he’s hand-stitched his many ‘mitumba’ textures, making another statement about his ‘struggle.’
Of course, he’s not the first to create stitched art. Think of the early works of Kota Otieno, Cyrus Kabiru and Dennis Muraguri.
More recently, Peter Walala worked with an actual sewing machine as did the British stitching artist Harriet Riddle who rode around several Eastlands estates stitching her ‘paintings’ with her mechanised needle and thread.
But Githinji’s got his own reasons for stitching disparate ‘found objects’ together onto canvas.
Those reasons are implied in his two multimedia painted self-portraits which look enlightened yet still struggling since a horizontal bar apparently blocks his way from fully realising the healing that Githinji now seeks.