BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (5 May for 10 May, 2019)
Anthony Okello is not a politician. Far from it.
He is one of Kenya’s finest painters whose artworks occupy space in some of the most notable public and private collections in the world.
Yet while Okello is no politician, he is certainly a social critic and visual satirist whose sentiments on people’s bad behavior are expressed through salient symbols that camouflage his covert assaults on foreigners and locals alike, with his attacks framed in fascinating forms.
One might not be charmed by all 15 of the oil paintings in his current exhibition at One Off Gallery entitled ‘Fishy Business.’ For instance, a work like ‘Man in the Middle’ might disturb a few visitors to the Gallery. After all, this bloated blue man has no arms and the only clothing he has on is a long red tie.
Yet one can never take an Okello artwork at face value. There is invariably something else going on. For one thing, there is an element of humor that usually softens any shock value his art might convey.
His works require a bit of deciphering, but the title itself offers several suggestive hints as to what he is getting at in this show. First, there’s the idiom ‘fishy business’ that connotes a situation that’s underhanded or suspicious. So Okello is most likely critiquing something or someone that’s corrupt.
Then too, there is the image of fish which appears in a number of his paintings, suggesting these works are part of a series associated with the title and theme of the exhibition.
As a bit of background, it may be significant to note that Okello’s people are historically from the Lake region of Kenya where many people’s livelihood depends on fish. Fish could then be seen as a symbol of abundance or wealth. So when one sees a series of paintings in which fish are floating through and in one instance, (‘Bowl Head 1’), the fish is actually inside a man’s head (which itself is shaped like a fish bowl), one has to ask what kind of relationship is this?
Four paintings in this one series depict men who are Chinese, according to the artist who BDLife spoke to briefly at the exhibition opening. All four have heads just as pudgy and bloated as the ‘man in the middle’. Yet these men have shirts to go with their ties. One of them looks like he’s already swallowed the fish, while another, entitled ‘The Intake’, is just about to consume one.
There is a third head that looks like he is either under water with the fish or observing them through a transparent fish bowl and aiming to decide ‘Which One’ to grab. Lastly, the head of the fourth man literally looks like a fish bowl since the top of the China-man’s head is cut off with the fish floating around in place of his brain.
Yet these four are not the only paintings in Okello’s show that contain fish. ‘Of Fish and Men’ seems like one is looking into a giant fish bowl along with the three African men on the other side of the tank. More than a dozen fish of various types are visible inside the tank. Meanwhile, these men look like variations on the ‘man in the middle’ theme since two out of the three Africans have their hands in the tank, as if they’re preparing to grab the fish, either for the foreigner or for themselves.
Okello may need to narrate the full implications of his paintings since his symbolism is deep and detailed. For if all these men are indulging in suspicious or fishy deals, it would also seem they are doing shady ‘business’ aimed at robbing Kenya’s natural wealth, (call it fish) on which millions of locals rely.
The one other ‘fish’ painting in Okello’s show is the ‘Prophetess, Rev, Dr, Bishop, Mrs’. She stands erect dressed in a pearly white gown as multicolored fish float at her side. By giving her all those fancy titles, the artist seems to suggest she too is engaged in ‘fishy business’ but of a different kind. She’s a charlatan prepared to claim multiple distinctions that ostensibly entitle her to whatever free-floating wealth she can get, be it as a Mrs, a Bishop or a Prophetess.
Only one artwork in his show seems not satirical but certainly surreal. It’s the “Nkobo Sisters” whose natural beauty is symbolized in the green leaves growing out of their sweet heads.
Anthony Okello's past stories by me: