By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 1 April 2019)
Michael Musyoka’s first solo exhibition at Red Hill Gallery raises more questions than it answers.
‘Time and other Constructs’ features nine enigmatic yet elegantly-painted large artworks, each containing a visual narrative suggestive of several meanings. They’re especially curious as the artist often juxtaposes antithetical imagery in a single painting, as in his ‘Listening to the wrong voices III’.
Listening to the Wrong voices III
Here he creates beautiful flying birds who seem as if they could soar off the canvas. Yet in the same painting he plants a sign reading, ‘Usikojoa Hapa’, Don’t pee here! Why such a deliberate violation of that exquisite aerial scene? Could it be because he doesn’t intend to create pretty paintings or artistic decor. It seems he would prefer to disturb by giving his art a deeper meaning.
Musyoka himself is a gentle, soft-spoken man who’s transparent about his paintings. Thoughtfully explaining the way he creates the backdrops of each work, he says he first blends and dries his colors, after which he uses a squirt gun to spray each canvas with water. Left to dry in any way the water will, Musyoka admits it was an experiment. But it worked, since every one of his paintings has a backing that’s got a different texture, tone and abstract design.
But that’s only the beginning. Then come the narratives. First there’s this chubby little boy who shows up in paintings like ‘Time 1 & 2’ and ‘Punitive Measures 1 & 2’. Musyoka is quick to confess the pudgy fellow is himself.
So here’s another key to unlocking the significance of what’s being revealed in ‘Time and other Construct’. These paintings are apparently ‘self-portraits’ of the artist who recalls he used to be like that chubby fellow who he still identifies with in his mind. It hardly seems possible, seeing Musyoka at the opening of his show, looking svelte and seemingly comfortable with his leanness.
Nonetheless, once one gets that premise down, it’s easier to see how one of the founding fathers of the Brush tu Art Collective could take this opportunity to spill the beans and paint about some of the most deeply-seated concerns that still trouble him.
One of them apparently goes back to his religious upbringing when kneeling was an expression of humble petition to a higher power. But that might be reading too much into works like ‘Punitive Measures 1 & 2’ wherein all the young men are kneeling.
But wait, one can’t be sure if they are in that pose by choice, or if they are trapped or even enslaved? Either way, in both pieces the colorful designs of their pants, shirts and shoes are more suggestive of joy and gaiety than ‘punitive’ punishment. Again, there’s the visual juxtaposition.
The show itself juxtaposes ensembles of young men either kneeling in stone silence or frantically running around in tight circles. It’s the runners that expose the artist’s rare aptitude for painting with anatomical accuracy. For like the birds whose wings seem capable of lifting themselves off the canvas, Musyoka’s squads of chubby fellows embody animated energy and dynamic movement that comes alive.
Yet these fellows don’t look inclined to flee since they’re all too intent on keeping ‘time’ (the name of the paintings, ‘Time 1’ and ‘Time 2’).
But again, one can’t be sure where his runners are going or why they’re on the run. It would seem they’re not running for pleasure. Rather, one suspects that just as his ‘punitive measures’ implied the lads’ kneeling wasn’t for pleasure, so these boys’ running looks enforced by some rule, possibly a set of strict deadlines or obligatory laws.
Yet for all the ‘rules’ that seem to be slightly threatening if enforced, rules implicit in signs like ‘50mph’ (the speed limit) and ‘Usikoja Hapa’, Musyoka also seems to deal with these dreary constructs with an underlying sense of humor and irony.
Even when the backdrops are dark, his birds are white-winged, symbolic of the freedom he seems implicitly to know he has. Even when the boys’ run looks regimented, that very sense of order and unity implies a kind of hope, as with the ‘band of brothers’ who invariably endure hardships, but they’re still happy to be coping with the constructs together.
Brush Tu Art Collective members with fingers pointed at Michael
In all, Musyoka’s first one-man exhibition remains steeped in mystery. Yet it’s also coded in colors that confirm the artist is challenged but content to continue experimenting and expressing beautiful slivers of his soul.