Kenya: Galleries - Celebrating Rich Variety of Print

When not making woodcuts of women with mightily muscled arms like Arnie and voluptuous thighs, attracting louche men with tiny hands lounging around dirty dives, Thom Ogonga remains immersed in the regional arts scene.

He is an arts writer and the founder and joint editor of the magazine Nairobi Contemporary (NC) that bills itself as containing, "intellectual discourse from artist perspectives," which I commend to you as a stimulating forum, even if it did publish a nonsensical article that had the audacity to criticise one of my reviews.

And Ogonga is also becoming an enthusiastic curator.

In Line, the exhibition at the One Off Art Gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi, in August last year that was devoted to drawing, he explored the variety of that discipline and now, alongside his own show of woodcuts at the One Off, he has curated a small exhibition celebrating the variety of print.

On show are 27 prints by 14 artists and they include woodcuts, silkscreen, etchings and monoprints.

Monoprints are fun. They are what we all did at school when we painted our hands and pressed them onto a piece of paper; or with dizzying sophistication carved a potato and printed with that.

They are also, along with stenciling, probably the earliest form of printing with hand prints on cave walls going back some 40,000 years.

Done properly they can be as subtle as aquatint etching, with differing densities of colour and a soft glow achieved by pressing the inked plate onto saturated paper.

The technique is shown to advantage in this exhibition by Jonathan G.S. Fraser in his suite of nine abstract prints called Roll and Throb, executed on traditional Japanese paper called washi in lemon and grey; a winning colour combination.

They began as abstractions of landscape (note the hints of horizon lines in some) but developed into statements about art itself and its making; the inter-relationships of gestural marks and the effects of transferring imagery from one state to another.

They ended up as a deeply satisfying realisation of practice, with a title that speaks eloquently of the roller coaster ride that is the act of artistic creation.

Three monoprints by David Thuku, Studies of Motion, demonstrate how versatile the medium can be. They show two figures walking, in what might be garden settings with a third running, head encased in what has become a Thuku trademark, a cardbard box, harking back to his concerns about the debilitating effect of rampant consumerism.

These prints are monochrome, deliciously soft greys that throw the focus onto the figures and the dynamic accuracy of the poses.

Nearby hang two fine etchings by Peterson Kamwathi, the beginning of a what might become a cluster examining the concept of the Noble Savage--we are all, no matter our race or background, 'exotic' and in parts both 'noble' and 'savage'--while the contortions of the figures echo the mental and social twists and turns migrants must endure to assimilate into another equally exotic society.

The versatility of etching is seen too in three prints by Simon Muriithi, where embossing the paper adds, literally, another dimension to the work.

Other etchings include a group of three by Patrick Karanja of which the most effective is Waiting for My Dear; a figure standing in a cone of light.

Both Kamwathi and Karanja celebrate a painterly chiaroscuro in their works while purity of line is demonstrated by Mandy Bonnell whose pristine sheets of Hibiscus and Ylang Ylang are among the most exquisite and delicate etchings you are ever likely to see.

In contrast is one woodcut by Sane Wadu and two by his wife, Eunice...they have an earthy appeal that reflects their makers' position among the First Generation of Kenyan artists.

The subtleties of woodcut can be seen however in a couple of block reduction colour prints by Mari Endo.

One is of a huge curling wave (the momentum of Hokusai's famous prototype The Great Wave off Kanagawa is an unavoidable source). The other, called Even and of two fish seen in close up, while more obviously designed, is an equally insistent messenger of quality.

Other interesting contributions include a vibrant silkscreen of urban images by Wanjohi Maina, a couple of typically bandaged figures by Ngugi Waweru and two woodcuts by Ndinde Bulimo; one of a child on a bike and another of a laughing boy aiming a slingshot.

Abdul Kipruto offers two woodcuts of unexpectedly pink playing cards, King of Flowers and King of Spades.

Any East African exhibition of woodcuts would be incomplete without a piece by Dennis Muraguri. His is a view of Ngara with matatus queuing for custom beneath a pedestrian overpass, for once placing his matatus as part of the city scene rather than centre stage.

These stand somewhere between the brash thump of the Wadus and the delicacy of Endo...which as Ogonga doubtless aimed to show along the way, proves how wonderful and varied his own favoured medium of woodcut can be.

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