19 April 2019

Kenya: Speak Softly but Wield a Big Stick

It cannot be a coincidence that prisoners, when taking part in art classes, frequently start by painting picture-book houses in sunlit meadows beneath open skies with a few fluffy clouds sailing by... and not a fence to be seen.

And so the artist Michael Musyoka who paints amid the hurly burly of Buruburu Phase 1, once touted as a model housing estate in Nairobi's Eastlands, paints with a lyrical beauty figures gambolling towards who knows what future, colourful doves fluttering across his canvases and groups of people on their knees, perhaps in prayer.

But then reality creeps in.

For Musyoka's current set of paintings swap the dark and cheek-by-jowl surroundings of the inner city of their creation for the open, verdant spaces of Red Hill, near Limuru. And while they too have escaped, it is only so they can take a grim message to these sunnier climes.

The tumbling figures in Musyoka's Time series are dancing hopefully towards a better life; his doves in the group Listening to the Wrong Voices signify the conflict between the law and our instincts by flying past the painted by-law that few heed, namely Usikojoe Hapa (Do not pee here); and the people on their knees in the cluster called Punitive Measures are being punished for their crimes.

The dancing people are the most immediately appealing of Musyoka's nine paintings at Red Hill Art Gallery, on until May 12, under the title TIME and other constructs.

Up to 15 chubby figures frolic across the largest painting in the show, Time 1. Shaped like Michelin men, they are vibrantly coloured, each ringing the changes on hooped, chequered or plain leggings and tops.

Helter-skelter they tumble across the canvas, their joyful journey marking the passage of time, their erratic progress also symbolising their attempts to find a better life. Like little round yo-yos, they spin towards the future.

The artist's three paintings of doves encapsulate the clash between the law and our instincts. While the least dramatic of the works, they are certainly carrying the most pointed message.

The birds, so often for other artists symbols of peace, are Musyoka's totems of freedom and their companion slogan Usikojoe Hapa is but a mild example of a law few seem to follow.

"What would the law be if not for the fear of punishment?" Musyoka asks in an introduction to his work.

He told me: "People follow the law only because they are scared of the consequences if they disobey it.

"But because the powerful enjoy impunity, they have no fear and therefore the law means nothing to them.

"They loot public funds, bend planning and building rules for their own ends, and get away with all sorts of crimes, confident they will not be punished."

Musyoka added: "I would prefer to believe in the innate goodness of people and often it is there to be found, but sadly experience teaches us it is also otherwise."

And then we have those who have actually been found guilty on their knees like supplicants and facing punishment in Punitive Measures; rows of them with their backs to the viewer as though we are standing behind them as they look to the altar.

They have been caught in crime, it is true, but we know these are only the small fry. The big fish have escaped and fear nothing for they are the ones with impunity.

In this exhibition, Musyoka lays out his subjects before us--time, crime and punishment--both to enjoy for their purely formal qualities as works of art but also for us then to consider for the force of their argument.

Each of his symbols is set on an abstract background created by spattering high contrast colours onto the canvas. I could easily imagine a lesser artist being content to exhibit the backgrounds alone as accomplished works in their own right.

From his cramped room in the Brush Tu Studio of Buruburu, an artists' group he helped to found in 2013, Musyoka expresses his concerns with beguiling skill.

All the paintings, acrylic on canvas, are large, ranging from 140x200cm down to 125x100cm and, with their glowing colours and confident finish, they command the airy white walls of the Red Hill gallery.

Musyoka's paintwork is lyrical; the rich palette with its sudden shocking highlights and the painter's lush execution reminded me of Richard Kimathi's politically pointed works.

Like Kimathi, Musyoka avoids stridency and invites us to contemplate first the beauty of his paintings. Only later does his message sink in.

Musyoka speaks softly but wields a big stick.

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