Six Kenyan women artists are just the tip of the iceberg as far as women artists working in Nairobi are concerned. But at least Polka Dot Gallery took time out from their ongoing exhibition of Ugandan artists to give the women a hearing for International Women’s Day and several days thereafter.
For this exhibition, simply entitled ‘Women and Art’, only painters were picked, although Kenya also has women sculptors like Maggie Otieno and Chelenge van Rampelberg, printmakers like Tabu Munyoki and Yony Waite and installation artists like Jackie Karuti and Wambui Kamiru Collymore. Still the six that were selected by the gallery’s founder, Lara Ray, show the diversity of styles that women are currently exploring in their art.
The one thing they all have in common, at least for this show, is their focus on the subject of women. Nonetheless, their work takes on a variety of shapes, styles and sentiments. For instance, some seem fun-loving, fresh and focused on either the hair, lips or funny face.
Mary Ogembo is a veteran in this regard. She has been painting happy-faced African women for years. She also has a fascination for women’s braids and their hair generally. Having started to paint the African woman in advance of most other female artists, she’s been widely recognised and awarded internationally. She’s had many solo and group shows both at home and abroad.
Joy Maringa has been a make-up artist for a while. It’s only in the last few years that she’s chosen to take her talent to another level, seeing it not solely as a functional skill to makeover plain-looking people into black beauties. Joy recognised that there’s a magic to what she does, which is how she came to create her own art form, calling it ‘lip art’. (Incidentally, Joy’s also got work at The Attic with Wanjohi Maina.)
The one art form that the other four develop in this show is the nude. Anne Mwiti, who’s the most prolific painter present doesn’t dwell on the subject. Her few nudes are semi-abstract, blended into streams of bright bold shades of blue, then brightened with yellow streaks.
Sebawali Sio only has one nude in the exhibition. Called ‘Barely Barely’, Seba seems more intent on exploring her women at a cerebral and psychic level.
Most of her female portraits are buried behind layers of paint, suggesting she sees women from a deeper perspective, possibly concealed behind layers of cultural sanctions and stereotypes.
Yet their eyes keep peeking out of her frames as if to say ‘I’m here, intent on coming out.” That’s especially true of the one portrait that Seba says is a ‘selfie’. She’s still buried under colourful streaks, but her visage is clearer as if she too is coming out into her own arena.
The show is on until March 23.
That makes sense since she pursued multiple career paths before realising her calling is fine art. That caused her to drop the rest and now concentrate of her artistic development.
In contrast, Patti Endo seems very clear about her focus. Her nudes are carefully outlined in curves and lines suggesting she is confident about her minimalist approach to the female form.
Finally, Nadia Wamunyu, like Patti, only presents nudes in this show. But unlike Patti’s who mostly drafts her models’ back sides in suggestive lines, Nadia mixes both back sides and ‘full frontals’ of the female form.
It’s the frontal poses that stick in one’s mind. Possibly that’s because they’re more provocative and shameless than others in the show. Possibly it’s because they are also the most intimate and emotionally intense portraits of the female form.
Nadia doesn’t give her nudes specific faces, only abstract shadows suggestive of their beauty. But hers, like the others, present idealised forms of the body. They’re ideals that drive some women to starve themselves so as to achieve that ‘Vogue’ notion of ‘body beautiful’. Indeed, all their nudes are devoid of excess fat. They’re trim and shapely, lean yet curved in all the desirable spots.