29 January 2013

Kenya: Dissecting the Issues We Take for Granted


Imagine that everything you know is wrong; that your reality is just an amalgamation of social constructs, none of which has any inherent significance. Attending events like weddings and graduations, enjoyable as they are, the futility of protocol weighs on you.

Sieving through the mad circus of convention, you look for something intrinsically valuable. Re-examining all your formative ideals, you pine for a higher purpose.

Many an artist will relate to this sentiment. While they are daring enough to screen life through different filters, they are the most likely of people to expose the ironies of society and to conceive impressions of an alternate mode of existence. "We set the pace for society," says Anne Mwiti, Lecturer of Fine Arts at Kenyatta University and a new artist to exhibit on the Kenyan contemporary scene. "Our job is to lead the way."

For Mwiti, currently showcasing her energetic collages at Que-Pasa Restaurant in Karen until February 7, art is a way of dissecting issues that we mistakenly take as fact. In her current exhibition Kaleidoscope, she looks at the overbearing expectations of women. "From mother to working professional, lover, temptress and respectable wife, women are expected to fill every role," she says.

In honour of a New Year, Anne Mwiti, Peterson Kamwathi and I decide to spend some time together looking at Kamwathi's new works. We find ourselves in a casual discussion about ceremony and performance on a cultural and national level. Kamwathi, who draws parallels between different ethnic rites of passage in order to determine their relevance, has been embracing certain facets of his own heritage lately. He is enjoying relearning the mystery and mysticism of what he calls "different aspects of belief".

Mwiti, on the other hand, focuses on the frivolity of certain formalities and rituals. Spiritual as she is, she still finds certain modes of conduct obsolete and laughs at how irrelevant and irreverent certain practices are. "In Kenya, it's not a wedding without a cake," she chuckles. Getting serious about the matter, she refers to the widely accepted custom where, "men marry as a means acceptance in the community and their wives must uphold all their beliefs. A woman might never have the chance to be herself".

Enjoying their thoughtful banter and just how well two strangers can get along, their perceptions hold a common denominator. Varying in age and experience, both artists agree that the majority of Kenyans, as traditional and as conservative as they come, are completely weary of the current formula for government. "We're exposed to other democracies and know the difference now," says Mwiti.

With the March 4 elections looming, our tête-à-tête is one of many comparable discussions happening across this nation right now. In Kamwathi's small, private studio in Kiambu, the very same place where he created the inspired works that lead to his recognition as a leading Kenyan artist, we catch a tiny glimpse of the artistic perspective on Kenya's state of affairs and the direction we are headed.

Kamwathi is Kenya's rising visual art star. He became popular through his woodcut printmaking, which he began at Kuona Trust Art Centre. He also works with metal, glass, and now, bucket loads of black charcoal. Consumed by the details of Kenya's first constitutional referendum in 2005, and studying the state of the Kenyan people since, he is often cast by critics as a political artist. Kamwathi himself however notes that that was not his intention.

"We live in a highly politicised environment," he explains, "Where political figures hold all the power". As a repercussion, the world around him, the lives of friends and neighbours, have all been impacted by the ramifications of this inequality. His studies are cognisant and deliberate investigations of the people who make up his orb.

Bare as his objective might be, Kamwathi's striking works have struck a chord with curators, art collectors, historians, and critics from Senegal and South Africa to the UK, Holland, Denmark and across the USA. Certainly, there might be more to discuss then, when it comes to these concentrated human enquiries.

In one quick movement, Kamwathi unrolls a massive charcoal drawing on watercolour paper and staples it to a wooden backboard for us to see. Reminiscent of his "Queue" Series, where we saw criminals, military men and big wigs in power, this untitled image is also black and white and extremely shadowy. It depicts two men, side by side, who Kamwathi says work in the area. They are standing in front of a mabati structure, also dim and smudgy. Intrigued by costume, Kamwathi says he chose to dress them in attire he observed elsewhere; the more fashionable clothing that Kenyans wear these days. Poignant and somewhat earnest looking, the men have a serious expression on. They are Kenyans.

Careful not to give away all of his new works, he then carefully only pulls three works out of a white folder full with obscure images. This time, each work consists of just one individual drawn in charcoal and filled with a muted colour in pastel. "From the Queue series, I'm working on isolating my characters now and doing a more thorough study of them. Who are they? Where did they go to school? What is their life like?" We see an anguished character; a man dressed in a blazer, jeans and boots, staring directly at you, hurting.

Next, he shows us a solemn individual, dressed in pop culture street wear. "He's a friend of mine, a good artist". Then, another one of Kamwathi's sinister soldiers wearing a gas mask. Rumour has it that these works might be a part of a joint exhibition with Jamaican artist Ebony G Patterson at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, Miami. The exhibition is expected to address black identity in societies that have endured a colonial history.

Cutting through the white noise, Kamwathi certainly has a way of showing things for what they are. The unsympathetic, unassuming nature of his works clench at your conscience and twist it. The truth is, whether it's a buyer who thinks of Kenyan art as foreign or out of the ordinary or an erudite collector who fully appreciates the historical context, Kamwathi's work draws attention to the Kenyan condition, in all its shame and glory.

Peterson Kamwathi is represented by Ed Cross Art Gallery in the UK and One off Contemporary Art Gallery in Kenya.

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