Confusing Sky by Richard Kimathi
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 1st August 2019 to SN&BD)
Richard Kimathi’s exhibition of paintings at One Off Gallery entitled ‘Wounds’ is soon to close. It is well worth making a trip out to Rosslyn to see it before it does.
‘Wounds’ comes on the heels of another one-man show, ‘Bare Knuckle’, that Kimathi, one of Kenya’s post prominent painters, had last year at One Off which also featured rows of little men of nondescript identities. They were and still are figures whose nationalities, color, creed and ideology cannot be easily specified.
In ‘Wounds’, they might be millennials. What is definitely distinguishable about them is that they all look sad, befuddled, even wounded, both physically and psychologically. A few of their wounds are visible ‘as in ‘Gentle Talk’ where one seems to have a deformed hand, and in ‘Confusing Sky’, another is missing an arm.
In ‘Conversation IV’ one man seems to have a wound in his heart. And in ‘A Rosy Cheek’, the man’s wound looks self-inflicted since he seems to be punching himself.
To suggest Kimathi is passing a powerful message about the dismal state of Kenyans’ collective psyche isn’t difficult to surmise, especially as none of his men look affluent, like the vast majority of Kenyans. None look comfortable with their lot in life. Instead, they look like ordinary everyday people whose discomfort can be seen, and even felt.
Two of the most disturbing paintings in the show are filled with rows of three-dimensional cut-out canvas characters who seem to be dangling from the variegated pastel and grey painted background. Their dangling is ominous in that it suggests their lives could be hanging by a thread. Their mental state of distress could have led to a hopelessness that ended in suicide.
In fact, in Kenya today suicide is a problem, especially among youth who can’t see what future lay ahead. Many are jobless, penniless and struggling to find means of surviving. It’s a sorry story, but Kimathi tells it viscerally and in a way that can stir one’s soul. His paintings are revelatory in that he identifies deep seeded feelings of disillusionment and anomy among Kenyans that hardly gets discussed in public. Thus, his show is a sort of invitation to open up and talk about the angst. Let’s open up and try to find the means to change the narrative. Let’s learn how ‘well-ness’ can supersede the wounds and positively transform people’s lives and thus, the society.
In one painting in particular, Kimathi hints the problem may have political implications. ‘Inked’ is a piece in which all four guys are showing off their pinky, the little finger that gets inked after you vote. Every one of the four has an open wound. Everyone looks sober and possibly disillusioned with the vacuous consequences of their vote. They voted yet nothing changed.
Kimathi’s art often speaks for the forgotten man. Giving a visual voice to the voiceless in ‘Wounds’, his men look like they’re in pain, but their pain is the silent type. One might see them on a Nairobi street and never know they were hungry, jobless and dying to see a way forward that might fulfill a fraction of their dreams. It’s Kimathi who paints their portraits with strokes of empathy as well as acrylic paint.
Yet one wouldn’t call Kimathi’s painting realistic. They have a more surreal effect, especially as his men (plus one polkadot-dressed woman) all seem to be floating on a blue-grey dreamlike fog that points to nowhere. In any case, what the artist has done is visually air the angst of millions of young Kenyans who deserve a better deal in this life.