By Margaretta wa Gacheru (3 December 2018)
Peterson Kamwathi is a mixed media metaphysician who mines his heart and imagination to create art that can both please and perplex.
Kamwathi is also a modern-day master whose current exhibition, entitled ‘Ebb and Flow’ at One Off Gallery reflects a continuity in his soulful creative process.
For while he admits his current works are deeply self-reflective, (implying he creates to sort out his soul using pastels, charcoal and spray paint), he also interrogates larger socio-global issues in his art.
His empathy for migrants, refugees and outsiders generally is reflected in most of his current works. The one exception perhaps is the most colorful painting in the show entitled ‘Good Neighbors’. It’s the one that greets you as you enter One Off’s former stable which Carol Lees’ wisely converted to stretch out her exhibition space and allow for more natural light to filter through.
But even then, Kamwathi’s colors are segmented into eight irregular shapes, each one edged with silhouettes of men, with each of those men having his own distinctive form and stance. One might easily assume that every color on his paper (not canvas) represents a migrant community that sticks together just as the Central American asylum seekers walking to the US border stuck together in their so-called caravan.
One thing you can be sure about Kamwathi is that every line, stroke and hue carries with it some symbolic significance. The symbolism is part of the enduring charm of his art and partly what must have intrigued the curator of African art at the venerable British Museum in London enough to buy Kamwathi’s art in order to exhibit it prominently in the Museum.
Kamwathi is the only contemporary Kenyan artist to be part of the British Museum’s permanent collection which is something of a ‘big deal.’ It might also suggest that fame and fortune could have easily gone to the artist’s head. But no way. Kamwathi remains the quiet gentleman who has no airs, attitudes or arrogant ways of relating publicly or privately.
The beauty of his symbolism is that although his symbols might initially seem obscure, once his imagery is understood one can appreciate how deeply the artist interrogates his environment, including its politics, economics, societal and cultural features. His art is infused with political messages which can be received subliminally as well as explicitly.
But like so many wise social commentators in Kenya, Kamwathi’s social comments are covert; they’re concealed in his charcoal drawings. It was true when he drew charging bulls in the 2000s during the days when politics were fraught; the artist practically foresaw the enflamed emotions that would break out after the 2007 elections.
In his current show, Kamwathi’s compassion for migrants and refugees is apparent in the one diptych he’s included. Entitled ‘The Journey. The Destination’, the artist again uses silhouettes of men in motion. Many of them intersect, others are in close proximity. But again they are united in one irregular oval shape, suggesting they are all taking part in ‘the journey’. The enigma is to figure out where’s ‘the destination’? Yet here is where you find the metaphysician in Kamwathi coming out.
It would seem that the journey and the destination are one, and the one is the process of movement. In this mixed media collage, Kamwathi has cut out his men from maps which one can see if you look closely.
The maps were of the Mediterranean and its environs, he told Business Daily on the day his show opened. In earlier times, new maps were normally drawn preceding imperial journeys which historically led to imperial conquests and colonizing, Kamwathi explained. So again, the deeper meaning of his symbols are cryptic initially, but once one has a clue, his artworks have a larger, more profound significance.
There is one other ‘Untitled’ work in his show which also reflects the concept of the unified journey and destination. One man is perched on the pinnacle of a rooftop, apparently running towards a giant cloudy swarm of still more miniature men. What’s happening here? Where’s this man going? The response comes from Kamwathi the metaphysician who suggests that swarm of beings represent the man’s past and future combined. And it’s all in his mind.
Finally, one clear sign that Kamwathi is keen to see his fellow Kenyans come along with him on his artistic journey is the way he chose to share his gallery space with artists Victor Mwangi, Martin Musyoka and David Mucai, his former Kenyatta University classmates.