Richard Kimathi’s solo exhibition at One Off Gallery entitled ‘Bare Knuckles’ takes one on a fascinating journey in which the artist interrogates the meaning of manhood.
It’s a daunting challenge, given this Kenyan visual artist relies on only oil paints on canvas to convey an inquiry into the issue of identity from a male perspective.
But with the combination of simplicity and directness, his paintings portray a series of boys to men in which his subtle symbolism compels the viewer to get the gist of his inquiry.
The title of his show, ‘Bare Knuckles’ is also a subtle play on words, since it would seem to refer to boxing and the vulnerability of the one who chooses to box with his bare hands, his naked knuckles. So one gets the idea right away that the artist, though painting a series of young boys and adolescents, is exploring an issue that implies a risky business. After all, the knuckles are naked, unprotected as is the unadvised child.
Naked also are the little boys in his paintings, although their torsos are painted as silhouettes so there’s nothing offensive about their nakedness. But apart from the series in the show of solo faces of little boys, most of the remaining paintings include a phallic symbol that gives away the notion that this is an issue that men, be they young or old, must address at various moments in their lives.
STRUGGLING WITH DEFINITION
The symbol is most frequently associated with dominance and power, but that definition would seem to be what Kimathi is struggling with. He’s a gentle man as well as the father of two young boys and a girl (the lads are six and nine; the girl is three). So one imagines that the meaning of manliness and how to share it with his sons is an internal debate that could have influenced this series of artworks.
One doesn’t want to read too much into his paintings. However, Kimathi is an artist who consistently addresses sensitive issues in his art. He has never been one to merely paint ‘art for art’s sake’.
But this show feels especially personal. There’s an air of innocence in most of the boys’ faces. Occasionally, there’s an expression of bewilderment, as if the child is wondering, ‘what do I do with this thing?’
But there’s also an undercurrent of play in Kimathi’s paintings, as they seem to reveal the joy this gentle artist clearly has in being a father with responsibilities that can hardly help spilling over into his art. (He even brought his two boys to last Saturday’s exhibition opening in Roslyn at One Off Gallery.
Originally from Nyeri, Kimathi attended the Creative Arts Centre in Nairobi in the 1990s before joining Kuona Trust in 1996. He is an award-winning artist who has exhibited his art everywhere from Hong Kong and Trieste, Italy, to Washington, DC, Amsterdam, Madrid and Dakar. He also exhibits regularly with One Off, where ‘Bare Knuckles’ is currently on display in the white-walled Stables side of the gallery.
On the side is the loft, where Carol Lees has also curated a second show, this one featuring works by Peter Ngugi, Leena Shah, Anthony Okello, Timothy Brooke, Fitsum Behre, Olivia Pendergast and Rashid Diab among others.
Kimathi’s exhibition will run through 25th September.