Many things make Boniface Maina’s current exhibition at Nairobi Gallery a special event.
First, it’s not incidental that he is the first contemporary Kenyan artist under 30 (apart from Peter Elungat) to exhibit in the gallery’s one hall devoted to contemporary art and to what the curator Alan Donovan, calls ‘veterans’ meaning artists he has known since the 1970s.
The fact that the show is entitled ‘‘Transitions’’ speaks to this point. It was Alan who decided to start showcasing younger artists who represent what’s happening in the art world right now.
It’s also the aspect of timeliness and relevance that makes Boniface’s show important.
His satiric political portraits, painted with pen and ink and accessorised with gold leaf, serve to debunk a common myth about Kenyan art. That is that it’s rarely politically edgy; only decorative ‘art for art’s sake’. His artworks are all steeped in political symbolism that’s not simply satirical but often subtly savage and borderline cynical.
At the opening last Sunday, a number of young Kenyans challenged the notion that his art was cynical. On the contrary, they said, it was “realistic”. For instance, his portrait of the ‘Poster Boy’ reflects a phenomenon happening right now during these pre-election days. These are the times when politicians are paying poor young people to ignore the signs that say ‘No Posters’ and put theirs up anyway.
It’s significant that from the backside view, the boy’ looks naked. That’s because the nakedness is symbolic not only of the young man’s poverty, but also of his vulnerability, and thus his exploitability.
It’s noticeable that Boniface’s paintings are populated by either prospective voters or candidates. Also that the voters are practically all naked while the political candidates are clothed.
The aspirants might only be wearing a hat and underpants as in “Mheshimiwa Returns’ or a bright red tie as in “The Serial Contestant II”. But they’re still better dressed than the voters whose favour they are ferociously seeking during this pre-election time.
It’s true that a few candidates have on a suit as in “Kura ya Mheshimiwa” (He’s also got the hat and red tie.) One even has a fur-collared coat. But he’s also the one whose face reflects the artist’s actual feelings for this breed of animal.
This politician has the face of a hungry fox, the kind one used to see in a grim fairy tale like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.
What saves Boniface’s show from being simply savage and cynical is the streak of humour that runs through every satirical piece.
For instance, he lampoons both political parties, as revealed in his ‘Flag Bearer I’ and ‘Flag Bearer II’. They’re both holding inflated balloons not flags. The NASA one wears an astronaut’s suit, while the Jubilee one has a hat concealing his face.
Several paintings are my favourites. One is ‘’Tyranny of Aspirants’ which is his most salient satiric piece on the plastering of posters all over Eastlands.
Another is his dancing politician doing ‘The National Dab’.
Finally, his “Kings and the Golden Vote” is possibly Boniface’s wittiest. The two gold-leaf footprints in the centre of the work are surrounded by outlines of crowns, suggesting every candidate aspires to be a king.
In this regard, ‘Transitions’ isn’t just about Kenyan elections. It seems to be relevant to elections everywhere in the world.