Aarti wa Njoroge | AfricanColours.com
Artists will always be inspired by two themes: politics and love. The former allows irreverence; the latter, tenderness. ‘Life and Forms’, Kenyan artist Sebastian Kiarie’s first exhibition at the Banana Hill Art Gallery, Nairobi, since 2005, is abundant with both.
The form – as well as content – of Ngecha-based Kiarie’s oil paintings holds similarities with British artist Beryl Cook’s works, although her name is new to Kiarie. Rotund bodies frequently fill the canvas and everyday scenes are boosted with exaggerated expressions.
Put Kiarie’s ‘Friends’ (2011), the man looking into the distance, his left leg apparently lovingly touching his dog, next to Cook’s ‘Royal Couple’ (2002), where the queen is staring with detachment while her corgi, his raised paw seemingly on the verge of waving, looks directly at the viewer.
The same direct gaze is seen in Kiarie’s ‘A Couple II’ (2010) – while his and her fingers are fused and his lips are pressed against her face, he cannot but help notice (pose for?) the artist. Is he distracted? When I questioned Kiarie (b. 1971), he responded that, on the contrary, the work shows that while a man “can have an eye for beautiful women,” it does not mean he is straying...
A couple II
His interpretation of ‘Friends’ is that companionship has its boundaries, “a friend is not always a benefit”. He is unsure if the man – who wants to relax – “is submitting to the nagging of the dog. But they are still friends.” I suggest that you may have to compromise at times. “Compromise!” agrees Kiarie. “That’s the word.”
More modest than ‘A Couple I’, but no less tender, are the expressions in ‘A Couple I’ (2010) and ‘Dialogue’ (2010). No room for any ambiguity. At the other end of the spectrum, Kiarie believes the piercing look in ‘Envious of Her’ shows that “when you love something too much, you get confused between love and hate.”
As for politics, those ‘Seeking Favour from Mheshimiwa’ (2010) are closely packed, not unlike the commuters in Cook’s ‘Togetherness’ (c1976). The protagonist is physically absent from this scene – it is as if he is looking onto the sycophants with their lowered eyes – but “you want Mheshimiwa to set the agenda,” says Kiarie.
Seeking favour from Mheshimiwa (big man)
Mheshimiwa meeting the people
While he is present in ‘Mheshimiwa Meeting the People’, the one individual uninterested in the rally is the vegetable seller, who is pushing his barrow while – again! – looking at the viewer. Kiarie justifies these direct stares: “Unless you have eye contact, concentration might be a problem.”
Another crowd scene is more poignant: ‘Visa Queue’ (2010) shows only the backs of people, the imposing embassy with its unmistakable flag appearing impenetrable behind a high wall with its tiny Alice-in-Wonderland-like door and barbed wire. Just as the vegetable seller is focused on peddling his wares and the rally attendees are attentively listening to the politician, tense visa applicants do not speak to each other; instead, they are focused on getting through the barrier, through the process.
Kiarie painted this after his own experience – after all, “my paintings are social commentaries”. He only wishes he had made the work larger, to symbolise how intimidating the incident was. While Kiarie believes the works in this exhibition are less political than his usual style, in my view, one does not get more barbed – excuse the pun – than ‘Visa Queue’.
Apart from a tree in ‘Visa Queue’ (“to show proportions”) and the produce in the barrow, there is no evidence of Kiarie’s training in agriculture at Egerton University between 1992 and 1996. Although he had started drawing in high school, a lack of exposure stopped him from seriously considering art, even though it funded his tuition and expenses, until later.
It was when he saw somebody painting the wall of a tea room in a hotel that he realised even he could “do something”.
Sebastian Kiarie (facing camera) is pictured at the Banana Hill Art Gallery.
It was too late for him to change courses at this stage, but his attitude towards his education – and education in general – is pragmatic, hence his scepticism towards graduate employment. “Did I go to school to get a job? Education is a tool. Why don’t I use that tool to do something? [I shouldn’t] wait for somebody else to formulate things for me.” Indeed he uses what he learnt, such as book-keeping, to complement his artistic skills.
Next, Kiarie wants to go into glass-blowing and pottery, to “maximise the gifts that I have”, to leverage his scientific knowledge to harness combustion and make his own kilns – but slowly. Any “change has to be gradual”, even the political revolutions currently taking place in north Africa. If you are a good swimmer, “but choose to swim in a current that is too fast for you”… His sentence drifts off.
Despite the lack of farming themes in Kiarie’s paintings, the luscious secondary colours of Kenya’s fruit and vegetables are prominent, from the lime green of the wool in ‘A Woman Knitting’ (2010) and the man’s suit in ‘Friends’, to aubergine (a dark shade in the mattress in ‘A Man and a Woman’ (2011), a lighter one in his jacket in ‘A Couple II’, her headscarf (‘Dialogue’) and the boots of ‘A Mechanic’ (2009)).
His red is often luminous: her dress (‘A Woman Knitting’) matches his jacket (‘A Man and a Woman’) and the handbag and background of ‘A Couple I’.
Kiarie was unusually compelled to use blue in the curtains – this time vertical, unlike the horizontal drapes more prevalent in his works – behind the table and chairs in the exhibition’s only still life.
‘In the House’ (2011) was the last work he painted, under “sustained, controlled pressure”, in time for the exhibition opening.
Maybe, when required, change can happen quickly and the current can be overcome – with a triumphant result.
Posted By: Andrew Njoroge
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