Coincidental with the launch of his autobiography, From Misery to Joy: A Journey of Endurance, at Nairobi National Museum next Saturday, December 7, at 3pm, Mzee Asaph Ng’ethe Macua is mounting an exhibition of his art in the Museum’s Creativity Gallery.
Assisted by his daughter, Elizabeth Wanjiku Sargent who helped him scour through his Art Room, (the one he describes in his book), the nearly ninety-year old Macua has assembled an incredible Retrospective show.
“It includes artworks from his days as an Art student at Makerere [in the 1950s] all the way up to the present-day,” says Elizabeth who also helped her father realize his dream of telling his story in a book format.
“He’d been surrounded by books all his professional life, but he had never seen one autobiography written by a Kenyan artist. He hoped his would be the first,” she adds.
The exhibition itself is a Retrospective unprecedented among Kenyans artists, especially for the length of years that Mzee Macua’s creative output reflects. There are a number of paintings and sketches from the 1950s when he was among the first Kenyans to study art at Makerere, often under his predecessor, Professor Gregory Maloba.
There are also artworks stretching from the 1960s up into around 2012. “He stopped painting just a few years ago,” Elizabeth adds. There are several oil paintings, but Macua had to stop working with oils for health reasons. As he recounts in his book, it was the turpentine that made him stop since it was physically hard on his body, especially after having been an invalid for the first 30 years of his life.
But before he started working with acrylic paints, Macua went for water colours which are some of the loveliest works in this show. He is also exhibiting countless sketches since he drew from the time he could get his hands on pencils, pen or wax crayons.
One of the most powerful pieces in his Retrospective, the first show he has had since 1993 when he exhibited at Alliance Francaise, is ‘The Beggar in a City Street’. Painted in oils in 1990, Macua says in his book that he sadly identified with the man since he too had suffered from poverty in his early years and he personally knew the pain of hunger. It’s a pain one can see in the beggar’s face.
One subject that the artist never tired of painting was Bible-related stories. They included everything from Jesus’s parables and instances of healing as well as Jesus on the cross and him at ‘The Gates of Heaven.’ Equally, Macua was partial to painting working people, including his father who in his pre-pastoral days was a mason who took a radical salary cut when he left masonry to work for the church (from Sh80 to Sh10 a month). Almost 30 years after he painted his father chiseling stones (in 1964), he painted a heart-wrenching self-portrait (in 1992) of a frail boy carrying a huge barrel of water back home for his mother.
Macua also painted African folklore including ones depicting proverbs like ‘Being smiled at is not necessarily being loved’ (Guthekio ti Kwendwo in Kikuyu). It’s a disturbing piece which illustrates how dangerous hypocrisy and duplicity can be.
But perhaps the most proficient drawing in Macua’s exhibition is the self-portrait that graces the cover of his book. With its penetrating eyes and carefully shaded cheeks and forehead, the painting has a timeless quality revealing why Mzee Macua won so many awards in his heyday.
The artist will be at his exhibition opening from 3pm at the Museum.