Thu Oct 03 09:47:22 EAT 2013
Week of Ws left a mark on world
Interesting times: A cursed week starting with an exhibition featuring Wafula, Wambugu and Walala.
- For a start, there is a continuing exhibition featuring three Ws — Wafula, Wambugu and Walala. Not alas Wilberforce and Walter but at least there is a William in there. And now they are being written about by Whalley.
There is a legendary Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
Well, it has been an interesting week for things beginning with W.
For a start, there is a continuing exhibition featuring three Ws — Wafula, Wambugu and Walala. Not alas Wilberforce and Walter but at least there is a William in there. And now they are being written about by Whalley.
Wambugu fascinates me, almost as much as I suspect he fascinates himself.
For William Wambugu is an intense artist who focuses on the common things in life — seats, tools, shoes, handbags, a shirt or two — and subjects them to microscopic examination with ink, pencil and wash until he has sucked from them every last nuance of meaning and, for that matter, life.
They lie on the paper like those desiccated insects you see in nature films, their interiors sucked dry by some awful creature with a sharpened tube for a mouth.
His intention, I feel sure, is to show us aspects of our lives that we might feel are trivial but which for him are keys to unlocking the mysteries of life.
SALVATION ON CANVAS
He could be right. Although I find it difficult to see God in a hammer, a hoe and a pair of pliers, it might well be that others will see their salvation there.
I do find this to be true in the minimalist plant drawings of Ellsworth Kelly and the reductive power of Constantin Brancusi’s sculptures.
And true too of the American painter and printmaker Jim Dine who in the 1960s produced a series of large images of tools so precise that you felt you could lift them from the sheet. He drew the souls of tools.
Wambugu’s drawing is more quirky, as can be seen at this current exhibition at the Redhill Gallery on the road from Nairobi to Limuru.
He lays out his subjects with a flattened perspective that opens them up to us like a body at a post mortem examination.
We can see how it would work, and guess it once did, but now it is lifeless on the slab.
Wambugu has sought to combat this inertness in a group of nine drawings by employing background and spot colours in shrieking pastels of orange, yellow and pink.
They certainly catch the eye and the contrast between the violent background and the plodding detail of the subjects sets up a counterpoint that is quite startling.
But like a shot of adrenalin to a dying patient it makes the heart beat momentarily but not enough to sustain life.
In the way we are all both fascinated and appalled by death, I am attracted to Wambugu’s drawings. They are compelling.
One of them points to what may be a development for this self absorbed artist.
It is of nine shirts and waistcoats, for which Wambugu has abandoned his manically detailed style (I am trying to avoid writing “anal” but clearly just failed) and instead used sweeping strokes to produce a confident, urgent drawing with a line that pulses with life.
Sharing the wall is Michael Wafula with six larger-than-life coloured drawings of men’s coats.
There is a policeman’s, a bachelor’s, clergyman’s, a missionary’s, that of a jobless man and one belonging to a secretary. Again we have a concern with the ordinary made extraordinary by an artist’s eye.
OBSESSION WITH COATS
But why is the policeman’s coat not a uniform, why does the cleric wear a jacket covered in printed slogans like “Trust yourself” and, “You think you know more than you do?”
As a series they gain power, in the same way that Wambugu’s repetition of one subject adds authority.
There is an assumption that to spend so much time on such subjects the man is on to something. Or maybe he just likes drawing tools, handbags and sofas. And in Wafula’s case, coats.
On the floor of this beautifully lit gallery, and on the neatly clipped lawn outside, are five sculptures by the other W in the show, Peter Walala.
Made of glass fibre and plastic strips, stapled together, they are bright, cheerful and pleasant to see.
One, naturally, is of a coat (no exhibition is complete without a few coats, you know) and adds to the sense of a thoughtful, homogenous show.
When winding up with the Ws, the week was of course noticeable — marked, stained and indelibly imprinted — by one more W, one that left the world watching in horror: Westgate.
I send my sincere condolences to all who lost friends and loved ones in that tragedy, and my hopes for a speedy recovery to all those injured both physically and in their minds.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.
The article first appeared in The East African.