Both Clinton Kirkpatrick and John Silver Kimani are storytellers and visual artists, with a special penchant for both painting and printmaking. What sets the two apart (besides one being from Northern Ireland, the other’s from Ruiru) is the way their surrealist minds work to interpret and filter through the facts and fictions of their everyday lives.
Their distinctive styles of printmaking have been on display all of July in Nairobi Museum’s Creativity Gallery in a massive show that they aptly entitled “Life and other Fictions”.
It’s a joint exhibition that might have been in the cards ever since 2012 when Silver gave a printmaking workshop at Kuona Trust and Clinton attended. The Irishman (who’d worked the previous year in Western Kenya with a public health care NGO) had been a painter practically all his life. But he’d never been involved with printmaking until Silver showed him how to make woodcut prints.
That workshop and the artist running it made a mighty impact of Clinton who’s been practicing printmaking ever since. What’s more since 2012, he’s been back and forth between UK and Kenya several times. Silver’s also gone to Belfast to share an exhibition with his former mentee at the Seacourt Printmaking Workshop in early 2016. And two years before that the two had their first joint showing at the National Museum. That one was so successful the gallery’s curator Lydia Galavu encouraged Clinton to consider coming back this year.
‘Lydia planted a seed [with that suggestion] that inspired me to think seriously about the story I’d like to tell in such a show,” says Clinton who realized it wasn’t his story that he wanted to share. It was Kenyans’ stories that would constitute the best sort of exhibition that he could create.
With that realization in mind, he began collecting stories from everyone who’d take him seriously when he asked them to ‘tell me a story’.
“I set no limits on the stories I wanted people to share. They could tell me fiction or fact, folktale or fantasy, ancestral sagas or personal life dramas,” he says.
In all, Clinton collected nearly 90 stories from all sorts of characters. He got them from children and friends he’d cultivated since he’d first come to Kenya in 2011. He listened to friends of friends, fellow artists, waitresses, MDs, peace makers and even a few journalists. A number of people got emotional as they related traumatic tales from their pasts. Others told folk tales while quite a few reflected on their life journeys.
Clinton’s commitment was to create a painting for every person who shared their story with him. “Initially, I was intent on creating a piece for every one I’d interviewed, but then I realized the time was too short,” he adds.
He did create wood cuts for all 88 people whose stories he’d collected. But ultimately, he could only complete 64, all of which he produced three prints for: one for this exhibition which he also ‘gifted’ to the National Museums “since I wanted the works to remain in Kenya”. The second one he’s giving to every interviewee although it’s proving to be a daunting task since his storytellers came from all over Kenya. But he’s committed to giving back.
His portraits seem almost as surreal as Silver’s works do. But in every case, Clinton has drawn upon the most powerful impression that each story made on him. For instance, one friend told him the Lwanda Magere’s legend which he conceived vividly in a semi-abstract style. Another man told him how classmates used to call him ‘the art doctor’ so there’s a bit more realism in that painting. Another print was filled with sleeping goats, reminiscent of one friend’s childhood memory of sleeping in straw with the family goats.
Clinton’s print/paintings reflect the degree to which the artist has delved into the depth of Kenyans’ souls. Having a rare capacity to not only listen attentively but also to generate an air of genuine interest in his subject’s storyline, Clinton’s artistic response in every case has been a fascinating blend of impressionism and fantasy. There’s also quite a bit of humor in his portraits which stray far afield from realism. There’s also a great many vibrant colors infused in nearly all of his prints so that while he’s created portraits that feel vibrant and alive with feelings and insight, they also convey a sensitivity and appreciations for Kenyan people’s openness, honesty and spontaneity of expression.
What makes Clinton’s gift to the National Museum all the finer is that he’s documenting each story so it will accompany each painting. That way we’ll not only be able to more effectively discover the meaning behind the paintings; we’ll get to appreciate the scores of stories contained in ‘Life and other Fictions’ that Kenyans freely shared with this wide-eyed Irishman.