Friday, 24 July 2009

Peterson Kimwathi and David Kaiza

East Africa, especially Kenya and Kenyans have waited a long time to find a combination as tangible as Peterson Kimwathi and David Kaiza. Finally they have found their writer/artist duo, similar to Oscar Wilde and J.M. Whistler, Eric Newton and Henry Moore, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

Kenya is a nation more familiar with literature than art but the work produced by Peterson speaks volumes. With holes in newspapers encouraging ideas of the media and institutional deceit or seen as forms of masks or white hoods worn by the infamous Klu Klux Klan; all these ideas builds the blatant picture of betrayal. It would be fair to say these artworks are on similar lines to sketches drawn by Francisco Goya in the early 19th Century, 'Disparate quieto', later to develop into the Black Painting of 1819-1823 or ‘The Inevitable’ by Ibrahim El Salahi as within these eight pieces of work, which were created over a 16 month period, rests the weight of a entire Nation. Similar to these Masterpieces Peterson has effectively created monochrome pictures as if printed in a newspaper and in his own personal way attempts to express the truth in black and white, devoid of colour to emphasis the magnitude of the issues he is trying to tackle. The bravery is for all to see, the artist has named and shamed his fellow Kenyans and in doing so shows the rest of the world the function and importance of art.

Here is a slideshow as a record and testimony for history.


Kamwathi’s Charcoal Statement On State Failure

By David Kaiza/

When he was doing research for his subject, Peterson Kamwathi wanted to see what the now notorious Form 16A looked like and he went to the Electoral Commission of Kenya. There, he asked them to show him the forms on which polling results are collated – on the face of it, an innocent enough request.

“When I went for the Form they told me to write to the Chairman of the Commission,” Kamwathi says. “I thought, how do I do this?” It did not take him too long to read the bureaucratic-speak, where “write to…” is jargon interprets as ‘sorry we can’t help you’. “Apparently, it might be a confidential document.”

Peterson Kamwathi started experimenting on the Sitting Allowance collection early 2008. At the time he chose the walls of the GoDown Arts centre exhibition hall as his canvas. Kamwathi was more irritated than surprised. The ECK was after all, the epicenter of the post election violence that convulsed the nation when the figures it had jotted down on those forms were disputed. To an organisation managing an image problem on the scale of the ECK’s, even a request from a fine artist was tantamount to a criminal inquiry. For all it was worth, his failed attempt to get a copy of the form merely added to the weight of the series of the art he was then creating. Bureaucratic imperviousness and the resultant disaster thereof, is after all, the central theme of his current show.

Showing now at the Nairobi Goethe Institut, Kamwathi’s report on the violence, titled Sitting Allowance, is startling: Monochromatic and large, the eight pieces startle by their originality as much as by their rhetorical pull. Done entirely in charcoal, Kamwathi’s show calls attention to itself. By choosing to present it in absolute black, Kamwathi may have felt that what he had to say was so important that if he did not make this loud statement, that his voice might have been ignored. In keeping with the by-now recognizable structuring of the narrative about the violence, hyper-reaction is not an indictment that can be laid solely at Kamwathi’s feet. Since June 2008, Nairobi artists and writers have sharpened their knives and applied it brutally on the surface of their material. Betty Muragori’s poetry, dramatized by StoryMoja, reacted to ethnic hatred with the violent title Cut off my Tongue. The moving photo exhibition, Kenya Burning, breaks a few photographical ethics by showing pictures that frequently but understandably, appeal to morbid curiosity. Kwani? is publishing a two-part magazine focusing exclusively on the violence. In the field of visual art, Kamwathi’s show is doubtless the most impressive so far. It is also, the most subtle, which is probably what makes it worthwhile.

His collection of eight pieces strikes you the moment you enter the gallery by the sheer blackness of their surfaces and by the rather uplifting repetitiveness of the same elements, the legs, the eyes and the grimly menacing faces that surround you as if you the viewer, were on show. He has focused on institutions that were involved in the elections – religion, the police, the media, politics, the ECK, election observers, elected politicians and the mediators that came later to quell the flames once the explosion happened.

It is at first intriguing when you have just walked in. It looks like a collection of group portraits. Then it also looks like a parade, for these staid postures are what you usually encounter on national days when the press is out, the police standing ominously on the sidelines, the professionals and students come out marching. But there is something extra here, for these figures have been brought up for more than simple inspection. After you have walked around, you cannot avoid noticing the deeply satirical treatment they receive. But it is difficult satire, for Kamwathi has never spoken to a simple audience, his large works, his direct messages are delivered without drama, so close to the humdrum surface of the everyday that you might miss the point. He does not do the sensational and the trite.

The portrait of religious leaders out in their garb of office, the police with their shields (written on “police” just so you may notice), the be-suited African leaders, the election observers, presidential candidates and electoral commission officials, simply stand there; everything about them seems ordinary enough, their suits correct and their poses officious. But you start to notice details. You see the manner in which the hands hang down by their sides, the height at which their jackets are set and the looks on their faces. You go back to seeing these pieces a second time and begin to notice moral depravity hinted at in their aspects. Is that naive innocence you see on the religious leaders, what of the relaxed postures of the police – is that intended as irony? What is most damaging satire is the manner in which the presidential candidates, desperately trying to look good in one of the pictures are instantly transformed into the classical long-reigning African leader; their dead faces, their impossible lifelessness, their inaccessibility and pasteboard faces. Seeing and capturing the Eyassingbes and Omar Bongos of African statesmanship is quite a coup for Kamwathi. Why are the mediators who came to save the situation, dressed up as doctors and what are the masks they wear for? More directly satirical is the treatment of ECK officials who hold up tallying forms – Kamwathi’s idea of what the mysterious Form 16A might look like. He brings them out as cowards – dangerous cowards hiding behind officialdom.

The minimalist exposition by the Goethe Institut works to focus like a magnifying glass on the singularity of the medium. The artist’s usage of charcoal carries too this magnification for the charcoal is given liberty to become itself; its absolute blackness, its light and attention absorbing intensity letting us experience at one level, the charisma of this elemental colour.

The simplicity is triumphant restraint. Often, abstraction and colour can hide imperfections or serve, by sheer talkativeness, to make us think there is something very significant going on in there which we might see if we scratched our heads hard enough. Hence, setting out to do something in such singularly is a technical risk; unless you are capable of mastering immense discipline, making a simple statement can be – paradoxically - very difficult. The sheer number of legs, heads, arms and eyes Kamwathi summons up on this parade make the simplicity work well; so much of the same thing, surrounding you and by sheer, nearly, numbing repetitiveness, wangles out its own austere aesthetic.

“Charcoal is easy and difficult,” Kamwathi explains. “Colour is forgiving. There is no responsibility with colour. Charcoal has very little Resistance; it’s almost like a dance, almost like clay. But there is no solvent once you make a mistake.”

It is also wasteful, as Kamwathi explains. The charcoal that holds onto paper is only one-third of what you apply to paper. He wanted to realise these images in life-size but could not find paper large enough. “It depends on what the issues you are addressing are. One way you can engage with the audience is through content, another is scale. I wanted to make it so huge that people notice it. There is a lot in there, there is historical manipulation, exploitation and colonialism going back beyond 2008, 2007, 2002 or 1992.”

The charcoal makes the issues graver. “If I had used colour, 90% of what I had intended would have been lost,” he says.

He mixes image with text, although the actual press release he reproduces, which prematurely declared the December 2007 elections a success, are a task to read.
The pictures are not on sale. As he explains, all eight pieces are a complete narrative and whoever is buying them, would have to take all of them, with the caveat that they make it available to the artist on request. Word going around is that a British collection is bidding for them, but Kamwathi won’t say who it is.
From Nairobi, they will be traveling to Germany. He spent 16 months doing this and 16 months with a dark chapter of one’s country is draining “There were points when it was very bad,” he explains. “I was in despair most of the time. The worst was the atrocities – so much had gone on and realising that those atrocities were backed by institutions so far removed from reality.”

Source: African Colours |

No comments: