By Zihan Kassam | AfricanColours.com
Thirty gigantic portions of canvas, viscous oil paints and a peculiar artist who very obviously operates at a different frequency. Those are the prerequisites in the composition of a transcendent new world.
Elungat's Exhbition Favorite, 'Sighs of Wonder'
Walking toward the old exhibition hall from the cool hallway at The Village Market last month, you could see gesturing effeminate forms, disproportional and vague. Behind glass doors, Elungat’s creations hung dormant. For some reason however, your feet kept moving you forward. There was a compulsion to stand amidst his work and as you entered the space, your eyes scanned the room over and over. Then, only so that you didn’t get lightheaded, you chose a starting point from where to take a closer look. That’s when it happened.
Staring at ‘Diary of the Untold’, you’re suddenly swallowed in to a new realm. The lady holding a journal, pensively reading a page, slowly pulls you in. As you step in to her presence, her facial expression becomes alive with emotion. The colours become deeper, her gesture more consequential, and the texture subterranean.
'Diary of the Untold' by Peter Elungat
Upon even closer inspection, there’s a sadness in her expression that comes from a sense of divine knowingness. There’s an eternal quality about her. She’s wise about the human condition, as if shouldering narratives she’s not permitted to share. Details of the enigmatic world she’s from are obviously chronicled in the dairy she’s reading but is the book hers or does it belong to someone she knows? Maybe it belongs to someone she loves, perhaps one of the other women in the room.
Stand close to a painting and a flash flood of questions will taunt each other in the back of your mind. They never dare appear in the forefront of your thoughts. Furtive in nature, these female figures, once elusively sleeping, awaken as you climb their doorstep. Staring in silence, onlookers stand in complete awe. Only a few interpretations whisper across the gallery. Potential influences are mentioned. Klimt, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Caravaggio.
Onlookers admire works by Peter Elungat at The Village Market, Nairobi.
“It’s like the Renaissance all over again,” someone says, “You might think he was a European. Italian.” “I see Moroccan influence,” someone puts in. “Typical African iconography,” a professor rebukes.
It seems there’s a universal quality about Elungat’s work that resonates with people from across the globe. Though outlandish, his paintings have a strange familiarity to them. They tend to induce self-reflection. Huge compliments to his work, perhaps as other people see themselves in Elungat’s paintings, it may be that they mistake their identity with their nationality and very often, claim his flair as their own.
“This looks like the art from my country,” you might hear someone say. Elungat acknowledges this distorted mirror effect adding that, “I too am definitely in all of these paintings. Somehow, even though they are all women, they are all me.”
The Quest by Peter Elungat
Speaking with him about whether his work is premeditated or not, Elungat’s response is simply, “I just stretch canvas and paint. I never know what’s going to come out. I try to copy sketches that I’ve done sometimes, but that never works. Something else takes over.”
He continues by talking about the content of his work. “You see, my paintings are mostly women,” he explains again, adding that, “It’s really not about their sex in particular but I enjoy working with the female form because I find their posture more expressive. They communicate something greater.”
When questioned about where his concepts stem from, Elungat shares an experience he recurrently had at home. “I was walking down the street towards my studio in the complete silence of night and a feeling came over me like a breeze. It’s like a wave of heat. You see, painting these images has nothing to do with being clever. Instead, there’s a driving force behind them. I don’t know what I’m going to paint. I just know that I am going to pick up the brush.”
He pauses to look at the colossal wonder behind him. “These images are from the spirit and I sometimes feel as if I’m picking them off a shelf, one by one.” Once complete, it’s as if these paintings were fashioned by someone else, as if they were made for Elungat and all of us to interact with.
Explaining how his completed works continuously amuse him, Elungat walks towards a painting in the right hand corner of the room. “So many famous artists have attempted painting St. Sebastian,” he explains, “and this is my version of him.”
Elungat's version of St Sebastian
He points at the left hand of his Catholic saint. The fingers meet each other as if in meditation. “He’s showing us that death is of little significance. It’s tiny,” he says, “and this other hand that’s held open as if to receive something. It indicates that he’s bold enough to face it, to accept his fate.”
On the top right corner of the painting he marks out large bits of texture that protrude from the work. “This is his physical pain.” He finally points to the slight smile on St. Sebastian’s face and sheds light on the marvel of his expression, “He’s not afraid to die.”
The subject of how artists entitle their work comes up regularly in the art world. Some artists believe that a name takes away from the significance of their work. Some use a title to compensate for a piece that perhaps didn’t manage to relay the message intended. Others name their work for organizational and categorical purposes. There are many reasons why an artist may or may not name their art.
In Elungat’s case, the ethereal names he conceives work to complement his paintings. Just when you think you can’t delve any deeper in to the chasm of the sub-conscience, his poignant labels propel your mind to wonder further in to the images. Emotive in nature, ‘Resting in the Sky,’ describes a figure lying back in to the black abyss, ‘Roses on my Shoulder,’ for a lady with a sombre yet peaceful expression and ‘Maybe I Should Let Go,' for a woman whose air is strained and discerning.
Roses on my Shoulder by Peter Elungat
It all makes sense you see. Peter Elungat not only has a love for painting eccentrically, straight out of a tube they say, but for whimsical words and phrases as well. Relishing literature that’s strange yet sensible, he especially enjoys the poetry of the famous Khalil Gibran.
He’s currently reading, Iyanla Vanzant’s ‘Tapping the Power Within.” Geared to empower women, it’s a book written by an American-born Yoruba priestess. In the chapter entitled, ‘Looking in the Mirror of Self,’ Vanzant writes about an artist’s work being a reflection of their soul. As we now know, Elungat shares this truth. In his own words, he shares that, “You are all the love you are longing for. You are all the dreams that you have inside you. You are your environment.”
A recognized contemporary Kenyan painter now, Elungat has been in the industry for thirteen years. Time at Kuona Trust Art Centre served to harness his talents and gain him some publicity but he has a much quieter studio now, in Malaba, which is in Western Kenya on the border with Uganda. As a young artist without any formal training, his works stole the hearts of many, and today, through several solo and joint exhibitions, he’s had significant exposure locally and internationally including an exhibition in Uganda, Austria and two in the United Kingdom.
For Kenyan art buyers, art historians and artists alike, Elungat’s breathtaking paintings shake the ground we know. Artists are amazed by his technique. For those promoting the Kenyan art scene, this exhibition was, without a doubt, one more step in the right direction. It was excellent news to witness another local artist selling to local buyers at international prices well worth their weight in paint.
At ‘The Playground of Life,’ the amount of interest in his work even prior to the official opening on Tuesday August 9th was outstanding. The number of red dots forced many a spectator to gulp in disbelief. Returning clients such as investment guru, Tony Wainana, came to claim yet another dream-catcher or two. For two weeks, from the opening to well after the close, no conversation about Kenyan Art didn’t include Elungat’s name and if you’re in touch with your humanity, and you’ve seen his work, there’s no wonder why.
Anne Ntinyari Mwiti, lecturer of Fine Art at Kenyatta University and a recognized artist within the Kenyan painters circle, described his allure well. “His pieces feel unfinished and the mind tends to want to wander and fill in the rest of the story. You can keep interacting with his work without getting tired. Sometimes, when a piece is too technical and perfectly complete, you can look at it once and not feel the urge to look again. With Elungat, you keep going. ”
Posted By: Andrew Njoroge
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