How home talent stands its ground
1 months ago, 20 Apr 15:09
Increasingly East Africa is becoming a magnet for world-class artists.
Nairobi is currently hosting two of them, for as well as the virtuosity of the Canadian-Brit Lisa Milroy at the One-Off, the acclaimed German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is, until May 11, showing at two sites within the city; the GoDown and the Circle Art Gallery.
But while Kenya is alive to visionaries from the West, Uganda is taking a more homegrown approach with a host of stellar African artists running teaching studios to underpin its upcoming third Kampala Biennale.
In Kenya, African artists are competing head to head with their Western counterparts, as can be seen to great effect in two exhibitions held alongside that of Lisa Milroy.
Xavier Verhoest (born in the DRC) has a room to himself in the new Stables Annex at the One-Off, while, in what used to be the main gallery, work by 11 Kenyans dazzles the eye.
In a small exhibition called Attraversare (Italian for “to cross”) Verhoest focuses on the migrant crisis following visits to Turkey, Italy, Syria, South Sudan and Somalia.
He offers a subtle interplay of imagery; always elegant, often initially mystifying but ultimately rewarding. Verhoest’s impressions conflate and melt before us as he strives to create an internal dialogue with events often thrust brutally before him.
Two other mixed media works by him hang separately in what used to be the main gallery, but there it is paintings by Beatrice Wanjiku and Richard Kimathi, plus a delicately nuanced charcoal and crayon drawing by Peterson Kamwathi, that captivate.
Kamwathi’s offering is more directly autobiographical than usual.
It shows six figures, all of the artist in a time elapsed sequence, trudging along the top of a fence. Wearing his iconic backpack, he walks head down against a rain of ash, tracking a giant Trumpian wall that zigzags across the paper.
It is a metaphor for the struggle the artist faces in his constant foraging into the unknown, heading from point to point and encountering fences and barriers he must surmount, while intertwined with this personal search is the plight of migrants who are also searching; in their case for a new life with freedom from their current social and political constraints.
The ash, meanwhile, can be read as the fallout of hopes and dreams springing from some cataclysmic violence; a volcanic eruption for example, or in the case of the migrants, a war that has destroyed their homes, societies and immediate futures.
Called Melilla alluding to the Spanish enclave in North Africa which has become a lodestar for migrants, this drawing, elegantly realised in charcoal and shimmering with pinks, lemons, greys and a delicate lime green, all highlighted by the speckles of white ash, is a tour de force and is, I think, in its purely formal qualities among the most beautiful and poignant of Kamwathi’s recent works.
Next to it, Wanjiku shows two paintings from her Savages series, which project the theme that as our own worst enemy we devour ourselves.
In one of the paintings the head is upside down. When Wanjiku ...
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