Monday, 22 July 2019


                                                                                  Artwork by Elias Mung'ora

By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 22 July 2019)

Anyone with even a fleeting interest in Kenyan or African contemporary art should have gone to see GracitArt’s superlative exhibition entitled ‘Behind this Face: The Human Face Evolution in Painting’. Better still, anyone who had interest in fine art generally should have made their way to Westlands’ Peponi Court to see a fascinating show that framed African art within a global art context.

But not just any African art. What makes this show so special is the way Kenyan and Kenya-based artists are appraised on the same plane and platform as world-renowned painters like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Leonardo di Vinci and Henri Matisse.
GravitArt founder Veronica Paradinas Duro is an architect, fine artist and gallerist who doesn’t define or confine artists according to age, environment or artistic background. Her concern is the art itself. She says she had wanted to create an exhibition that linked artists whose works convey comparable styles.

Having studied centuries of Western art and currently collecting African art to present at her online gallery and at pop-up shows like the one that just closed, she sought to convey the unity of artistic expression that transcended time and space. Initially, she wasn’t sure how to present that unity until she thought of portraiture as one genre of painting that presented itself in practically every age. It was there in the ancient art of Egypt all the way up into present-day Graffiti spray painting.

Such an undertaking had been devised once before in Nairobi by the former director of the Italian Institute of Culture, Francesca Chiesa. But hers was on a much smaller scale, with just one painter, Longinos Nagila. Hers was also an impressive undertaking; it also placed the Kenyan artist’s works in a broader, deeper and historically wider context, placing Nagila’s art in a global art realm.
But Veronica didn’t limit herself to one country or person. The African countries represented in ‘Behind this Face’ included Egypt, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya and Sudan. But the preponderance of contemporary artists that she and the newest member of GravitArt, Hiroko Ishikawa, selected to compare and contrast are Kenyan. 

They included Anthony Okello, Boniface Maina, Dennis Muragura, Elias Mung’ora, Elungat Peter, Lincoln Mwangi, Onyis Martin and Shabu Mwangi. Also featured are Nairobi-based Pan-Africans like Eltayeb Dawelbait and Hussein Halfawi, both from Sudan and Fitsum Berhe from Ethiopia.
What made the Gravitart show so fascinating is the way Veronica and Hiroko compared artists we know locally with internationally acclaimed painters. For instance, they saw similarities between Boniface Maina and the Surrealist Spanish Salvador Dali, Lincoln Mwangi with another surrealist, the Belgian Rene Magritte and Peter Elungat with not just the neoclassical Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya and the art nouveau Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt. She even correlates aspects of Elungat’s art with the Italian Renaissance artist, Leonardo Da Vinci.

They identified elements of Shabu Mwangi’s art with those of the ‘New Figurative Art’ of the British painter Francis Bacon. They did the same for Onyis Martin and the conceptual artist, American Joseph Kosuth. And their comparing Elias Mung’ora’s paintings of ordinary working people and local street scenes with artwork by the American realist, Edward Hopper, was a ‘no-brainer’. Both are straight-forward in their clear-sighted style. Yet as realistic as their images may seem, both create paintings that are distinctive. One can identify a Mung’ora on sight just as easily as one knows a work by Hopper.

The other thing that made the Gravitart exhibition so exciting is the fact that no one has previously perceived contemporary Kenyan art so broadly as to view it within a global art context. The closest comparison to Gravitart’s curatorial design is the exhibition curated several years back by the former Italian cultural director Dr. Francesca…. She mounted a show especially for Longinos Nagila, correlating his works from one particularly exhibition with mainly Italian Renaissance painting.

Francesca’s was an excellent, eye-opening show. But Gravitart’s exhibition was wider both in depth and scope. For instance, she related the Egyptian artist Mohamed Rabie’s painting with ancient Egyptian art from the 31st century BC. But in another respect, she could see elements of Rabie’s work that correlated with those of Peterson Kamwathi.

In most cases, we agreed with Veronica’s and Hiroko’s comparisons as for instance, Shabu Mwangi’s compatibility with Bacon, Peter Elungat’s with Da Vinci and Boniface Maina with Salvador Dali. But whether one agreed or not, it was a revelatory exhibition that one can only wish Veronica would bring back to a more accessible space.

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