If Thom Ogonga and Michael Soi were a comedy team, Ogonga would certainly be the ‘straight man’ and Soi the loose cannon pushing the socially acceptable limits.
But the two are not actors; they are visual artists who have been friends since the 1990s, when they began working at Kuona Trust, first as artists, then as staff.
Rarely do they do a show together but their current exhibition at OneOff Gallery seems fitting for them to jointly share their most recent work in an exhibition ironically entitled “The Gentleman’s Club’!
Both committed to visual storytelling with their palette, acrylic paints and canvas. They seemingly share similar subject matter in their art—namely, intimate relations between consenting adults seen in public spaces.
Yet beyond that basic theme, their work is strikingly different, both technically and content-wise. Ogonga has a talent for blending subtle hues and creating fine-lined elongated forms, while Soi works with ‘flat colour’ which he uses straight from the can.
One paints moody human beings, the other social commentary taking a broad cast of characters who he’s personally seen cavorting around Kenya in the night.
Reflection of daily life
Ogonga’s adults are apparently modest and fully clothed while Soi’s immodest characters seem to practice the mantra “less is more”—less clothing, less inhibitions and less shame associated with a public display of their sexual preferences!
Despite the differences, they have commonalities including saying they aren’t painting from their imagination but reflecting the day-to-day life in Nairobi’s local bars, hotels and strip clubs they confess to patronising occasionally.
“Kenyans are good at passing judgment on others,” says Soi who has gotten a bit of flak from pious church people who don’t approve of his night life scenes. “But I merely paint things I see.”
Soi says this side of Nairobi isn’t really a secret. But that doesn’t prevent his critics from calling his art decadent and disturbing.
His current work at OneOff is part of his latest body of provocative paintings, including uncensored scenes from Nairobi night life.
Soi’s previous works have been equally thought-provoking, unorthodox and some would say ‘outrageous witty’ and spot-on. One series (of 16) highlighted the ‘Hague Express’ and was surprisingly prescient in its foreshadowing the fate of the Ocampo Four many months before the ICC pressed charges.
Another was on one of Kenya’s most recent financial fiascos, that of the disappearing millions from the Free Primary Education Programme.
So anyone who’d dismiss Soi’s art as either frivolous or far-fetched needs to see his current show within the larger context of his complete works.
Meanwhile, Ogonga’s art is far more tame and non-controversial. He’s got no kinky cavorting in his paintings.
Instead, his couples, troikas and lonely solo souls all are fashionable dresses.
But they’re imbued with an air of urban alienation. His characters look like ‘beautiful people’ apparently involved in a ritualized game of courting.
But there’s a feeling of detachment and lonely isolation in his art which reveals yet another facet of Nairobi’s night living..
Both Ogonga and Soi’s prices are more affordable than some Kenyan artists: “I would rather see my art on people’s walls in their homes than in the galleries,” says Soi, who believes the galleries are important venues of exhibiting Kenyan art.
At the same time, he sells quite a bit of his work on Facebook where he often features his paintings as works in progress.
So while Ogonga may look like the ‘straight’ and sober half of their two man team, and Soi seems like the wild card who’s both provocative and unpredictable, in fact, both artists share similar social concerns, especially those related to corruption, both political and personal.
‘The Gentleman’s Club’ aims to expose some of that corruption as it manifests itself in myriad aspects of interpersonal affairs.
Both artists claim there’s a definite linkage between the personal and political.
Their art challenges the public to examine those connections and see how ‘impunity’ isn’t only a term descriptive of Kenyan politicians’ conduct.
According to Soi, it can apply equally to ordinary Kenyans who fain respectability but can be found at odd hours in the ‘gentleman’s clubs’ that Soi and Ogonga chronicle in their art.