By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 8 August 2019)
‘Kesho Kenya’, the exhibition of paintings and photography at Alliance Francaise that opened early this week, is much more than a stroll down memory lane.
The poster for the show subtitled it ‘Then and now’, referring to a more relevant theme since it suggests the artworks in this show are more dynamic, more about a transition between what came before and where we are today.
In fact, the artworks of all eight artists represented at AF go way beyond being nostalgic reflections of pre-colonial times. The concepts underlying the show as defined by Karakana, the curators of the exhibition, Celestine Wamiru and Stephen Nderitu, are grounded in issues of African identity and culture.
According to Celeste, (who is Kenya’s first female editorial cartoonist), issues of “African spiritualism, Afro-Futurism and Africa’s lost history” are the central themes that have fueled these artists’ imagination.
For Chela Cherwon, Native Nairobi, Blaine29, Ango Makau, and Saka arts painting was the medium they chose to use to explore the Karakana themes. Meanwhile, Sogallo, Ian Kiplimo and James Gikonyo chose photography as their main medium for participation in ‘Kesho Kenya’.
But it was virtually inevitable that these eight millennials would focus more on the present and future than on the past. In fact, Afro-futurism which is closely correlated to Afro-surrealism is the dominant concept that seems to run through the exhibition. Not that Afro-futurism can’t also embrace the past and the present. But the eight clearly didn’t feel confined by a finite sense of time. Instead, there seems to be more implicit attention given to ‘African spiritualism’ and an underlying current of creativity that is African.
Nonetheless, there are hints of past cultural practices in Chela’s choice to paint people’s faces in a sort of scarified style, the allusion being to the scarification that some pre-colonial communities practiced. People stood in line at the exhibition’s opening night for a chance to be ‘scarified’ (with washable body paint) at the hand of Chela.
Native’s painting of a traditional ‘Medicine woman’ pays tribute to the Suri people of Ethiopia who blended reverence for soul and the soil, including the forest plants and flowers that historically were said to have healing power.
Blaine29’s colourful portraits also seem to be about traditional medicine men. And yet her use of color feels almost psychedelic; and one of her men’s eyes look like they’ve got sharpened daggers exploding from their eyes. If that doesn’t sound ‘African surreal’, I don’t know where it can be classified.
Many of the artworks in ‘Kesho Kenya’ reflect this kind of eclectic mix of past, present and futuristic themes. For instance, photographer James Gikonyo’s ‘Sage’ does what a few of the other artists do: allude to the past, using technology of the present to create an image that is at once futuristic and surreal. Sage is draped in a leopard cape, wearing an ‘Afro’ hairstyle and holding an orb that connects her with electrified super-power that enables her to tune into unfathomable frequencies and knowledge. The electrified super-power is magnified in her eyes and is also visible on her arm where she has a holographic man in miniature (from who-knows-where) standing prepared to communicate.
All the photographers are inclined to create similarly surrealistic images. For instance, Ian Kiplimo has created several portraits of beautiful young people – both women and men -- covered in body art and coiffed in well-wrapped African textiles. Meanwhile, along the same wall, Gikonyo, working with Sogallo came up with an ‘Ubuntu’ portrait of a half-naked (from the waist up) warrior surrounded by many dismembered hands, all reaching out to touch the man. It’s an unsettling (photoshopped) image, but it’s also got a hypnotic effect.
Sogallo has also brought several intricate line drawings to the show. One, called ‘Genesis’, is dense with intricate lines but also filled with haunting African masks, the kind that inspired Western modern artists like Picasso, Matisse and Braque.
Sogallo’s deftly delineated map of Africa is also an affirmation of what this show represents. So does Chela’s painting called ‘African Essence’, a work that reveals the crux of what Karakana apparently wanted to encourage, which is art that also expresses appreciation of what Celeste calls ‘African spiritualism’.
Finally, one way that spirituality is expressed in this show is through the music that Joseph ‘Ango’ Makau honors in his paintings of musical instruments. But even these have a semi-abstract style that borders on the surreal.