27 November 2012

Kenya: The Collective Countenance

"Tribalism is a ruthless devil," says Kenyan artist Joseph Cartoon. "The faces I paint are similar to other faces from contemporary African art except they are painted in different colours to show that tribe and race don't matter."

Cartoon explains how uncensored photographs of the shocking post-election violence of 2007/2008 featured in the powerful exhibition Kenya Burning have haunted him. "I saw the pictures at the Go-Down first, the kind they would never put in the newspaper, and I could not believe what I saw."

At his current exhibition, Life Expressions, at Nairobi National Museum, Cartoon showcases his ever popular, gaudy visions of oil on canvas. This time however he tells us a little more about the ambiguous faces he paints. "With an emphasis on faces, the images are dissected into different colours. My people have no backgrounds. There is no tribalism."

The concept of a tolerant, collective conscience is certainly compelling and one hopes that we are indeed moving toward a global race; however this message is made more coherent by Cartoon's narration than the artwork itself.

Cartoon's work is an acquired taste but extremely popular with collectors of contemporary African art. His images are shaped by colourful semi-geometric contours combined with unruly, clashing colours. The details are simplistic by design but the sheer number of effects on one single canvas will hold your attention.

Set within everyday village life, Cartoon's subjects are charismatic, sometimes even comedic. We see women at the homestead, fetching water and carrying vegetables. "I grew up on a farm in Kabuki, in Ngecha," he tells us, "and I've always been inspired by women working outdoors, by their responsibilities in society." Using images such as mushrooms to represent his homeland, Cartoon goes strong on the imagery. The most prominent of his symbols is the chameleon, which represents cosmic changes in Kenya as a whole and, as a repercussion, our identity as individuals.

In his painting 'Making the Local Brew', we see five rural women standing around a pot, stirring up a potent local cocktail. You can see how times have changed when you catch one of the women sipping at a straw directly from the concoction. It is a comical image as the other four women have a somewhat bleak, apathetic expression, their eyes half closed, their body language indifferent. The work is done in a proverbial style with just a few subtle cues from modern-day Kenya.

Cartoon's allure derives from range of factors, the most obvious and tedious of which is that people are drawn to bright colours. Secondly, it seems we revel in what we are acquainted with. By nature we are inclined toward the familiar. With African prints and certain familiar icons like the Kenyan hut for example, we enjoy what we can recognise.

We also identify with Cartoon himself, a longstanding Kenyan artist whose genre of work falls in line with other artists of his calibre. To put it candidly, Cartoon keeps us in our comfort zone. Even so, there's nothing wrong with being nostalgic and a using familiar style of expression to conjure elements of our national heritage and may be even fragments of our personal lives.

Cartoon, real name Joseph Njuguna, is a second generation Kenyan artist who was privy to the works of the illustrious Ngecha artists, some of the best self-taught artists in the nation. Artists like Sane Wadu and Wanyu Brush are legendary figures on the Kenyan art scene who became internationally renowned through their association with the late Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu 20 years ago. Ruth Schaffner, a prodigy in her own right, bought three of Cartoons works in 1994 and promoted him as well as other artists from the Ngecha region.

Inspired to paint by his uncle's friend, Shine Tani, owner of Banana Hill Art Gallery, Cartoon worked many years as a Banana Hill artist. He travelled the globe, participating in static and travelling exhibitions, both joint and solo, in over 40 countries, winning many art awards including the Royal Overseas League Award (2001). Today, Cartoon is acknowledged by his international audience as both a conscientious and industrious Kenyan contemporary painter.

Now based in Nairobi, he is married with two sons. He markets his own works and meets with collectors regularly. His work is sold through the One off Gallery in Runda and Cultural Heritage in Tanzania. Though busy exhibiting internationally, on occasion, he exhibits right here at home.

It seems Cartoon has genuinely struck a chord with collectors of contemporary art the world over. "I've met with some prominent personalities since working on my own, some of whom purchase over a number of works at a time. To name a few, Dr Kwang from The African Art Gallery and the Africa Museum of Art in Korea has bought over 35 works. Javier Calvo from the IFC at World Bank in Washington has may be 20 paintings. Castro Garangi, an investment minister in South Sudan, owns seven huge works and Hellmuth and Erica Rossler-Musch from the new Red Hill Art Gallery own about 10."

It's the kind of conversation I most enjoy and Cartoon and I converse happily for a while. "Tell me Cartoon, what is it that we need to do to give the Kenyan art scene a face lift, to gain the interest of Kenyans themselves?" I ask. "There is the issue of younger artists now," he remarks. "There are no galleries promoting them and they have very little representation."

In true Cartoon style, he concludes by adding his own coil to an old African proverb. "Any flock without calves has no future. If our young artists are not nurtured, the future of Kenyan art remains hanging in the balance."

Life Expressions will run at Nairobi National Museum until December 6

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