- One of Mary’s more uncharacteristic paintings was inspired by a South African woman who came to her studio dressed in form-fitting jeans, which Mary chose to paint including the woman’s curvaceous bottom.
Mary Ogembo is a specialist in painting African women in all shapes and sizes, the one caveat being they must be beautiful. She decided to focus on women a few months after graduating from the Creative Arts Centre (CAC) in the early 1990s.
Graduating in the same class with some of Kenya’s best known contemporary artists such as Michael Soi, Maggie Otieno, Jimnah Kimani, Justus Kyalo and Michael Wafula among others, Mary concedes it was something of a “golden age” at CAC, one of the few art institutes in Kenya training young fine artists.
Like the rest of her CAC classmates, Mary had a burning desire to make her mark on the contemporary Kenyan, African and global art worlds. It’s an ambition she has largely been successful at. Her current exhibition at Safaricom’s Michael Joseph Centre is testimony to that.
She’s hung 39 paintings the centre that are primarily portraits of women and girls, although she’s been experimenting painting masks. All her masks portray images of women.
Aiming to create a new iconography of women using the masks as symbols of power, she admits she was influenced during her art residency days in Ghana where one village in particular is world renowned for producing iconic symbols that are passed down from one generation to the next.
The Ghana residency was the first of many that have taken Mary all over the world, from France, Egypt and India to Abu Dhabi, Zimbabwe and Lithuania. She chose to do her first residency in Ghana after winning the Commonwealth Arts and Crafts Award in 2005.
“The award enabled me to choose which Commonwealth country I wanted to do my residency in; and since my focus was already set on African women, I wanted to stay in Africa,” said Mary who spent six months at the Kwame Nkrumah University’s Fine Art Department. She’s been traveling widely ever since.
Influences from those travels can be seen in her current exhibition. For instance, one of her women is attired in an element gown worn by Baganda women. Another one of her paintings reflects her most recent residency in Abu Dhabi where most women were covered head to foot in black.
“I enjoyed the women but I had to paint them in bright colours rather than in black,” she said, referring to one painting of three Muslim women draped in yellow, orange and bright green head scarves.
One of Mary’s more uncharacteristic paintings was inspired by a South African woman who came to her studio dressed in form-fitting jeans, which Mary chose to paint including the woman’s curvaceous bottom.
The other painting that is quite evocative, not to say risqué, is another curvaceous woman who Mary paints from the neck down. The woman has perfect Playboy bunny breasts, the sort that were historically the preserve of babies, but since Western influences have crept in are now just as sensually alluring as an African woman’s back side has always been.
Her newest works have raised a few eye brows, especially as she’s painted several sets of beautiful girl friends who are out on the town. But contrary to what some critics have suggested, she claims her girls are neither ladies of the night nor lesbians. They are simply young women exercising their freedom of movement.
The other influence that comes up often in Mary’s art are women’s hairstyles, which often feature corn rolls or braids. Her hairstyles are so distinctive that she may be attending an international hair fashion conference before the year is through, if she can fit it into her busy schedule.
When she is not traveling, Mary is based at the GoDown Arts Centre and has been working there for more than a decade. Some of her smaller paintings run around Sh50,000 while the asking price for others can go as high as Sh500,000.