12 January 2019

Kenya: Looking At the World Through Woodcut Prints

George Ongeri Omesa is probably one of the best woodcut print artists in Kenya.

The finesse of his work is captivating. Red, white and black are typical colours in his prints, which he signs "George Onkoba."

Symmetrical patterns fill the lower half of the frame beneath a bright red upper background, while human figures are printed on both halves of the frame.

Omesa uses his prints to communicate his views about the environment, social and political subjects. He often surrounds his figures with animals, leaves, flowers, butterflies and birds. The surreal narratives portrayed in the paintings tease your imagination.

The Black Bull shows a black bull fighting a white one that is standing on its forelegs. In the illustration called The Blue Lady, a woman outlined in blue is sipping a cocktail; she has a spindly tree with blue fruits growing out of her back.

I noticed this about Omesa's paintings -- often, human figures have heads of plants and trees, perhaps symbolising the interconnectedness between man and nature.

Omesa also reviews subjects like mental health, the national debt and social injustice. The Walk of Life is a print in indigo blue and white, showing a disturbing scene of headless people on the move. One person is pushing a man in a wheelchair. Here Omesa tackles the topics of migration, disability and the fate of the elderly.

A dark, mixed media print called The Journey of Our Life shows a couple in a boat catching fish. The man has a yellow tree growing out of his head. Working together you sense their unity of purpose, while the colourful chameleon, butterflies and fruits brighten this scene of industriousness.

Omesa did not study art at school; he worked in the financial sector before becoming a full-time artist. He trained at Kuona Trust Arts Centre under veteran artist John Silver.

Omesa also creates abstract paintings in multiple colours on canvas. But I find his woodcut prints more interesting.

Omesa is part of a group art exhibition showing at the Karen Club. More of his works are available at his Nairobi gallery called The Art Kiosk, which is based in Loresho.

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