BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 23, 2017)
Many things make Boniface Maina’s current exhibition at Nairobi Gallery a special event. First off, it’s not incidental that Boni is the first contemporary Kenyan artist under 30 (apart from Peter Elungat) to exhibit in the Gallery’s one hall devoted to contemporary art and to what the Gallery’s curator, Alan Donovan, calls ‘Veterans’ meaning artists has known since the 1970s.
The fact the show is entitled ‘Transitions’ speaks to this point. It was Alan who decided to start showcasing younger artists who represent what’s happening in the Kenyan art world right now.
It’s that aspect of timeliness and relevance that also makes Boniface’s show important. It’s important in part because his satiric political portraits, painted with pen and ink and ‘accessorized’ with gold leaf, serve to debunk a common myth about Kenyan art. That is that it’s rarely politically edgy; only decorative ‘art for art’s sake’.
His paintings, although they could seem slightly obtuse to some observers, defy that shallow perspective. His artworks are all steeped in political symbolism that’s not simply satirical but often subtly savage and borderline cynical!
At the opening last Sunday, a number of young Kenyans challenged the notion that his art was cynical. On the contrary, they said, it was “realistic”.
For instance, his portrait of the ‘Poster Boy’ reflects a phenomenon happening right now during these pre-election days. These are the times when politicians are paying poor young people to ignore the signs that say ‘No Posters’ and put theirs up anyway.
It’s significant that from the backside view, the ‘Boy’ looks naked. That’s because the nakedness is symbolic not only of the young man’s poverty, but also of his vulnerability, and thus his exploitability.
It’s noticeable that Boni’s paintings are populated by either prospective voters or candidates. Also that the voters are practically all naked while the political candidates are clothed. The aspirants might only be wearing a hat and underpants as in “Mheshimiwa Returns’ or a bright red tie as in “The Serial Contestant II”. But they’re still better dressed than the voters whose favor they are ferociously seeking during this pre-election time.
It’s true that a few candidates have on a suit as in “Kura ya Mheshimiwa” (He’s also got the hat and red tie.) One even has a fur-collared coat. But he’s also the one pol whose face reflects the artist’s actual feelings for this breed of animal. This ‘mheshimiwa’ has the face of a hungry fox, the kind one used to see in a grim fairy tale like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.
What saves Boni’s show from being simply savage and cynical is the streak of humor that runs through every satirical piece. For instance, he lampoons both political parties, as revealed in his ‘Flag Bearer I’ and ‘Flag Bearer II’. They’re both holding inflated balloons not flags. The NASA one wears an astronaut’s suit, while the Jubilee one has a hat concealing his face.
Several paintings are my favorites. One is ‘’Tyranny of Aspirants’ which is his most salient satiric piece on the plastering of posters all over Eastlands. Another is his dancing politician doing ‘The Political Dab’, which most pols are now doing after seeing it performed by the Big Man.
Finally, his “Kings and the Golden Vote” is possibly Boni’s wittiest. The two gold-leaf footprints in the centre of the work are surrounded by outlines of crowns, suggesting every candidate aspires to be a king.
In this regard, ‘Transitions’ isn’t just about Kenyan elections. It seems to be relevant to elections everywhere in the world.