Titles attached to exhibitions of events can be informative or ill-advised. For instance, the exhibition currently at Banana Hill Art Gallery by Nigerian artist Adeshina Ademola is appropriate. ‘Beyond Borders’ makes sense as a lead into a show filled with works by a man who has defied regional boundaries and come all the way from Lagos just to share his art with art lovers in Nairobi.
On the other hand, an exhibition entitled ‘Then and Now’ which is at Nairobi’s Village Market makes one wonder. ‘Then’ refers to past tense, the implication being that two of the four Kenyan artists on show are ‘past tense’ or old news.
But from the look of the works by Alan Githuka and Wanyu Brush, the two senior artists in the show, there is nothing ‘has-been’ or outdated about the art of these two venerable artists, both of whom harken from Ngecha Village in Kiambu.
Indeed, in the 1980s, Ngecha was seen as a major fount of creative expression from which came a vast array of local talents. It featured everyone from Sane Wadu, Sebastian Kiarie, King Dodge Kang’oroti and Chain Muhandi as well as Githuka, Bush and many others. The late Ruth Shaffner had even planned to build an art centre in Ngecha in order to nurture that talent. But somehow it was waylaid and another Centre got established at the National Museum which became Kuona Trust.
Ngecha artists like Bush were disillusioned by that turn of events, especially as Ms Schaffner died soon after Kuona was formed, based on a blueprint from the Watatu Foundation. So it is heartening to see a show featuring these two Ngecha giants.
Githuka’s landscapes can never fail to please the eyes with his beautiful blend of red-soiled rolling hills and sun-lit azure blue skies, several of which are featured in the VM show. His cityscapes were among the first of many others to reveal Kenya’s perennial problem of overcrowding with his portraits of slum houses stacked in multicoloured rows looking tightly packed but tidy all the same.
Bush is one of Kenya’s first semi-abstract artists. It’s a style he has retained in works like ‘Let’s Rejoice’ and ‘People at work’, pieces that are also part of the Village Market show.
For sure, Githuka and Bush come from an earlier era and generation than Clavers Odhiambo and Richard Kuria. But all four them ought to be seen as operating in the ‘now’. All are present tense. In fact, Kuria has been around a bit longer than Clavers, but they both are playing active roles in Kenya’s art scene currently.
Both men paint portraits of Kenyans although Kuria’s repertoire, which invariably includes chunks of black vinyl disks, (what used to be called ‘45’ records) also has an inclination comparable to what many genius matatu artists once had, which is to paint international celebrities, particularly soul, reggae and hip hop artistes, like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.
Clavers, on the other hand, has already become something of a star in his own right. His hyperrealistic style captures audiences’ attention with immediacy. They normally have to ask: is it a photography or a painting? It’s a fair question since his art takes a literal approach to representation. Be his subjects young or old, fat or thin, he manages to represent every imperfection, smile line, wrinkle or pensive gaze, mastering skin hues, receding hair lines and any other quirky point.
There are some critics who question the value of hyperrealism, or super-realism, which they will say can be easily replaced with a photograph, an item some say they normally ‘plagiarise’. But then when the art form has reached the level of being deemed an international art movement, one would rather ask, why isn’t Clavers Odhiambo already included among the rest? For his attention to detail, perspective and focus are extraordinary. His subjects literally seem to come alive on his canvas as his art suggests he has a shared intimacy with them.
In contrast, the subjects of Adeshina Ademola’s paintings feel more mechanised and geometric. His most interesting works (for me) are his abstract jigsaw puzzle paintings, including ‘Symbols of Authority’ and ‘Sayings of the Elders’. However, his ‘One Commandment’ feels almost like a stained- glass window illumed with rich crimson, gold, green and turquoise light. Take a trip up to Banana Hill and see for yourself.