Just as the acclaimed Irish painter Francis Bacon painted biomorphic portraits of people that were grim, disfigured and expressive of the torment that the individual (or the artist) apparently felt about life generally and Bacon’s life in particular, so Samuel Githinji also paints man-size figures that seem to reflect his own tortured perspective on his life and possibly on those of everyday Kenyans.
Githinji, whose emotionally powerful paintings are currently on display in his second solo exhibition at the Red Hill Gallery, fills his larger-than-life sized canvases with stick figures painted with bold black and red strokes set against a plain black and white background. Occasionally, he mixes his blacks with a deep, dark blue. But neither his colors nor his shapes, stark lines or scribbles are meant to suggest a semblance of beauty. Instead, like Bacon, his ghoulish figures are meant to be ugly and grotesque.
One feels they are meant to send a strong signal as to the suffering of ordinary Kenyans whom he occasionally paints with halos, as if to say they are society’s suffering servants in a state where corruption robs them of any hope for their future.
Compounding that sense of hopelessness and poverty, Githinji also sometimes rips his canvas with holes which are comparable to the tattered rags that his pencil-thin men are wearing.
Another feature that makes one feel his men are in bondage to their hopeless conditions is the horizonal black or blood-red straight lines that cross the chest of every man, as if he is dwelling behind bars. Hints of barbed wire also reinforce that feeling of entrapment that Githinji so effectively conveys in his paintings.
But what might be the most disconcerting aspect of his figures’ features are their faces which, like Bacon’s, are distorted beyond recognition of any humanity. Instead, some look more like bestial creatures which might imply that poverty itself turns men into beasts for survival’s sake.
The faces of others look hollow, featureless, as if their very identities have been erased in light of the heavy burdens they feel just being alive. Meanwhile, a few remind one of Edvard Munch’s painting, ‘The Scream’ which also has an emotional impact that is tragic yet undeniable.
Githinji’s art, equally, has an emotional impact that is desperate yet undeniable. Indeed, in spite of someone feeling ‘turned off’ by the tortured expressions of his figures, one may also find it difficult to take one’s eyes off these disturbing men. They seem to confront you with more questions than answers. They might even compel you to ponder what reasons could inspire this talented Kenyan artist to step away from painting the pretty decorative art that sells so well to tourists.
It’s because the artist has powerful sentiments to share about society and the powerful forces that ignore the needs of the vast majority whose lives are desperate.
Yet as nihilistic as Githinji’s stick-men seem to be, his art is not entirely hopeless. Instead, one can occasionally find a small flower (or two or three) sprouting out of the rubble and filth. The flowers, some white other blood red, seem to symbolize that touch of hope that Githinji suggests in the halo and crown he occasionally gives to his characters.
Yet one is not meant to be fooled by any sense of false hope. That crown is a crown of thorns, the kind first worn by Jesus Christ before he was crucified. It hints at the notion that times will continue to be tough in Kenya, but there may be hope. Yet who can wait for the kingdom to come? Not Githinji.