It was an intriguing group exhibition showcasing the works of many young Kenyan artists, most mentored by the successful and energetic artist Adam Masava, founder of the Mukuru artists collective. I, especially enjoyed the works of young Kelvin Nzioka.
Nzioka paintings were painted in a style that can be called the Afro-Impasto technique: impasto is a technique of oil painting where broad-brush strokes apply thick layers of oil paint onto a canvas while the paint is still wet. This technique is used by painters across the continent. A notably example is artist Fred Abuga, whose brad strokes are more vivid and less subtle than Nzioka’s work. Nzioka’s paintings depicted Nairobi city scapes, with pedestrians in the foreground flanked by Nairobi’s sprawling high rise buildings. These paintings are whimsical and yet sombre, as he used a wide blend of greys, and browns ina reddish hue to create a sunset city scape. When I asked Nzioka what inspired his city scape paintings, he stated that ‘For me its not even the buildings that I like to portray. They’re just like a body I use to tell the message’. When I asked if he was more interested in people than landscapes, he said the former was his primary focus of in his paintings.
“It’s not even about buildings. These buildings, in as much as we build them, they’re not even authentic,” he noted.
This is an interesting anecdote. You can perhaps see the confusion or the alienation he speaks of in the paintings themselves. In his painting Journey to Discovery, the human subjects start in the foreground of the painting walking towards the end of a street, which narrows down into a haze of thick grey brush strokes in the background. Through this linear perspective, it looks as if the people are walking into an ominous unknown far off in the distance. This confusion or alienation in the painting Journey to Discovery is a key theme of the exhibition, which sought to ask question, “how can we imagine an equal and decolonised arts when dominant cultural narratives continue to shape our experiences and collective imagination?”.
The exhibition is culmination of a long project started by the SAAP. I spoke to the director of the organisation, Fadhili Maghiya, who said that the journey to Madaraja began a long time ago.
“It was a project we did in 2019 called Days Ahead. It was looking at imagined futures, and allowing creatives to imagine how the world would look like in 2030, 2040. The focus was looking at how ethnic minority black creatives in Wales would imagine a future in 2030, especially the future of Wales. And within that there were a lot of big things coming out about identity, heritage, culture, belonging, which allowed us to see this is a deep issue”.
The Madaraja Exhibition was the culmination of a Pan-African exercise, and features the work of artists from West Africa and the Caribbean as well as African diaspora members in Wales. One such artists was Cameroonian painter, Mfikela Jean Samuel, whose surrealist acrylic paints stood out in the exhibition.
What intrigued and at times confused me about this exhibition and the Madaraja project in general was the conceptual link between the SAAP, the Kenyan artists featured and the other artists from other African countries and the Caribbean. From talking to Maghiya, it is clear that the purpose of the project was to build bridges between artists in the diaspora and artists on the continent, and use that bridge as an avenue to talk about African culture, heritage and identity. On one wall of the gallery, they asked a number of questions to the attendees and asked for responses in the form of sticky notes. One question asked whether the audience would like to see more African cultural events in Wales, to which I responded by asking how would we see these events and what relevance would they have to those of us here in Nairobi? The key conceptual motifs that anchor the exhibition and the project in general, such as ‘equal and decolonised arts’ ‘dominant cultural narratives’ needed to be expounded in more depth, especially in relation to the work of Kenyan artists.
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