Friday, December 4, 2009
I came across this piece by David Kaiza who writes about African art superbly and with inspiration. It appeared originally on the www.africancolours.net site.
I have several of Richard's works for sale in London, one of them is in my current show SEVEN ARTISTS ONE CONTINENT. I plan at some point to put on a solo show for him here.
Image courtesy of www.African Colours.net
The Life And Times Of Richard Onyango
A book by Richard Onyango
Reviewed by David Kaiza
The Life and times of Richard Onyango
“It was nearly midnight when I saw her. A woman wearing a cream dress and shoes. She had a unique figure 8 – because she was very big and strong – and she looked at me…she had very fierce eyes. Wow, I said to myself, who is this? She was smiling at me and admiring me so I added some more beats just to make her happy. Then she stood and came towards the stage…”
So Drosie enters Richard Onyango’s life, to be endlessly reproduced in his art, years after her death; her size, her presence and the mystery of her. She enters his life, and through it, into our consciousness.
In this pocket book, the first on the enigmatic Kenyan painter’s life, we wait, almost morbidly, for the first mention of Drosie. This does not come until page 19, but given only as notice, presenting the music-band atmosphere in which he met her. From there, the narrative veers briefly to the circumstance of poverty, drugs, and the twin makings of Onyango’s life - music and art. It is a mere page and a half that separates the notice to the revelation. But your heart beats in the half minute it takes to meet Drosie…
As it were, she is introduced through drum rolls and colour and never leaves even when the book ends.
As if anticipating the questions in the reader’s mind, Onyango introduces her in full – all of that heft, those eyes, that energy and the inscrutable presence that we have now come to wonder at.
‘Wonder at’ is a statement too early. First, his work seers into the consciousness, outrages, intrigues and finally defeats the mind. Acceptance comes much later, and for many, what remains is wonder – whether as admiration or simply wondering (with disturbed questions) what it is all about.
The first time I saw his work, a few years back when it was profiled in The EastAfrican newspaper, I barely read the article for it had elements of what in this region (and beyond) is referred to as ‘naïve’ art – an excretive which is a sad product of colonial/racial history. It was not until 2008 after I had come to Kenya and started coming to terms with its art (mercifully ‘naïve’ is now on the periphery) and understood its circumstances that I again met Onyango’s work.
“Met” does not give it full vent; rather, it met me as no doubt it does all who see it. Onyango’s art forces its way into your consciousness in a way which is probably unfair. Like a mortal insult, an accident or holiday of a lifetime, it stays with you. The sheer mass of Drosie at first seems like a morbid attraction; all that flesh and folds, as if the artist had gone out of his mind and was just trying to shock or in some drug-ridden mood were letting a disgusting, erotic fantasy run loose. Who would want to put a picture like that up unless they too were in a similar frame of mind, after all it begs the question – what is art?
Yet they can’t all be mad. It is after hearing the story of it that one feels guilty about the initial reaction. It is also the fact that the artist has real talent that keeps one going. Like a book that changes the way a reader expects a book to be – a first encounter with magic realism for instance – the disturbance gives way to attentiveness and the beginnings of engagement. But the entry is not easy.
Later you see things from the artist’s perspective, and thence, to begin considering what precisely it is all about. It is a very serious matter, for the artist operates beyond inhibitions, going right to the centre of how art and life have been shaped in this region.
Kwani? founding editor, Binyavanga Wainaina approached Richard Onyango and suggested he write his story. The Life and Times of Richard Onyango is the result. It is a pocket book, only 64 pages and can be read within the hour.
Perhaps it’s a good judgment that it be a booklet for now and mercifully, does not give away the whole story, only giving brief overviews, which for now, remove some of the questions about whether this is art at all.
In it we follow Onyango’s childhood, his family moving over from Western Kenya to the coast. It was not really a life of struggle, and what hardship the young man faced came from choice. His decision to leave home was not dramatic, just renting a house so he could be closer to school.
It was in the routine of waiting for money his father sent him by bus that he started drawing buses. It was Tana River Bus which he first painted and was an instant star with it and the mesmerized company director ordered he travel free - for life. It was not the only ecstatic bus company that would give him this privilege. Not that he really needs it. Fame has brought him a measure of success and among other things, this book tells us Onyango owns 11 Landrovers and has acquired a crane. Whatever for!
Playing the Band by Richard Onyango
The manner in which Drosie practically pulled him off stage into her life, to only keep him as an appendage to her life, has to be read. Onyango does not tell us if there was any intimacy between the two of them although there should have been a lot of it. “Oh Richard, you met a mzungu so you abandoned us,” his band members chide him. Onyango does not tell us about the months that have passed between the time he left the band and attempted running away from Drosie.
Later there would be encounters with Drosie’s parents and the racial tension therein. These tensions are not just between black and white. The black waiters and gatekeepers in the exclusive coastal resorts frown on him showing up. It is the unbelievable, refractive racism that still goes on and which we feel on the wings of Onyango’s paintings.
The harrowing narrative of Drosie’s death comes as something of a shock to someone used to seeing her as a picture model. She is human! In a way, this book is also about the life of Dr. Suzy - Drosie a nickname given her by her mother. In this way, the book remains unfinished, as indeed, Drosie’s presence in Onyango’s life and work.
No one paints like Onyango and by the looks of it, he will remain inimitable. Drosie paintings are still coming. Not one-offs, they are a continuous narrative, like a 19th century novel published piecemeal in periodicals, you want the next installment.
As narrative, his story contains many narrative elements: personal/cultural encounter, soliloquy, biography, colour and landscapes and a lot more.
Hence, they can be interpreted over and over, from all angles – gender, race, history, anthropology, erotica. Is it the emasculation of man in the age of gender equality?
Who is Drosie?
Had she not existed in fact, we might have thought Onyango made her up. Is she embodiment of how our world is divided into a West inordinately powerful, driving, encircling, domineering and too wealthy for its own health? Or is Onyango suggesting that this wealth and power is to the detriment of the West as well as everybody else?
As art, what’s in it – magic-realism, realism, surrealism or just naïve art given rhetorical vent?
He uses symbols extensively, whether they are a bedstead as a spider’s web, a drooping fan in a corner or the wall plaque “I Love Africa”, they all say something, fittingly, seeming to be ordinary appurtenances of daily life, pointing out the lively interweaving of meaning in things we don’t take a second look at.
Art writer, Katrin Bettina Müller says Onyango’s work is a “…parody (of) colonialists´ views, fears and longings. With the figure of Souzy (sic) Drosie, a voluminous English lady, he creates scenes reflecting ironically on the new and uncertain status of the artist,” going to say that his work “…suggest(s) that the luxury of patronising art and artists is part of an extravagant life-style. Art as a ladder to social success presupposes Western conditions. Richard Onyango is pointing out bitterly that market-dependent art is part of a post-colonial heritage. He has also found a formula for the ambivalence of his new identity.”
So many things happen simultaneously in Richard Onyango’s art that each time you come to it, you see something different. In time, it will probably be unaffordable.
Drosie was his girlfriend. Drosie has become his symbol, suggesting that the apparent force of her says less about the real relationship, for Onyango saw and thought about everything.
Yet at the same time, it is not always possible to like Richard Onyango’s work. I sometimes feel outraged by it. I don’t know if it is the kind of work you can like. An essential strain, almost necessary that emerges from Onyango demands that you engage it with the mind rather than the heart, yet it does not crowd out the heart.
At the bottom of the outrage, nags the question about how much a man can put up with, not just because 300 pounds is slammed over him, but because circumstances just keep coming at him. His ability to remain steady through it all probably says something of how much substance Onyango’s got in store.
The fact which ought to stay at the very top is that this man is hugely talented. His colours, his composition and sense of proportion are winning. He is an artist and this fact rounds back to the beginning, to redeem and to re-affirm what first hits you. His talent not only forgives the outrage, but lifts it up from conventional indignation to a height where we see Onyango, not as cultural aberrant but as questioner, a painter of big canvas on which everything appearing, everything is laid on the table.
His talent is clearly present in the book for the people who saw his art, whether the bus company director or the Italian collectors, understood they were in the presence of a real thing.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
Dominique Zinkpe - Untitled Drawing
Domnique Zinkpe - Untitled Drawing
Dominique Zinkpe - Minuit a Aborney - Oil on Canvas
Richard Lilanga - Mbuni - Acrylic on Canvas
Richard Onyango - Indian Truck - Acrylic on Canvas
George Lilanga - Wacha Hayo Si Mayani - Oil on Board
George Lilanga - Untitled - acrylic on wood
Jems Koko Bi - Parody - Ink on paper
Jems Koko Bi - North Wind - Ink on paper
Peterson Kamwathi - Sitting Allowance - Untitled - (Police) Mixed Media on paper
Lovemore Kambudzi - Mbare Musika
Soly Cisse - Petit Prince - Oil on Canvas
Seven Artists One Continent
African Contemporary Art in
Contemporary Africa is vibrant, often chaotic, frequently humorous sometimes brutal and dangerous, often charming and compassionate, surprising, refreshing to the often jaundiced Western eye - likewise the art that is being produced in this compelling and paradoxical continent.
This exhibition makes no grand curatorial claims, takes place in a private space in a city that has until recently paid little attention to contemporary African art. But we live in changing times and
Seven Artists One Continent features work by the late George Lilanga from
SOLY CISSE –
LOVEMORE KAMBUDZI –
PETERSON KAMWATHI –
JEMS KOKO BI –
GEORGE LILANGA –
RICHARD ONYANGO –
DOMINIQUE ZINKPE –
Seven Artists One Continent (curated by Ed Cross and Rebecca Leathley)
Private View 6.30 pm Thursday 26th November 2009, thereafter accessible by private appointment only (via Ed Cross on 07507067567).
Enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Ed Cross Fine Art will be putting on a show in Notting Hill in late November/early December - this will be a private exhibition bringing some really strong and compelling contemporary art from Kenya, Benin, Senegal and Cote D'Ivoire.
There will be a certain amount of work on show in my flat in due course and may have other exhibition spaces available to me later - if you are in London or visiting and would like to look at work of the artists that I deal in do please get in touch on 0750 706 7567 or email me on email@example.com. There will be an edcrossfineart.com website shortly.
I will from time to time have work available from:
JEMS KOKO BI
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
My show at the National Museum of Kenya opened last month – this, to make a change, is my own work. I was invited to put on an installation of my sculpture as part of the Aga Khan Worlds of the Indian Ocean conference and festival taking place in
The exhibition features photographs from contemporary Lamu by Abraham Ali to together with an educational exhibit on the carved doors of the Indian Ocean put together by the National Museums of Kenya and Alliance Francaise; and my work – inspired by and using material from the East African coast.
Its not quite as fun writing about your own work as others – but I am pleased with my exhibit – which was a synchronistic coming together – offering a contemporary, imaginative interpretation of the East African coast by, I hope, a respectful and appreciative outsider – along with liberal quantities of beautiful white Diani beach sand.
As I type this I have just witnessed the first major test for the show - an invasion of about sixty small school children thronging round the work – rather like the insects that had besieged the wood earlier, they troop in some on all fours , others scooting along the tiled surface of the newly renovated museum, and are gone. And then silence returns.
My show consists of some older work – and some new pieces that I did specially for the installation. In the newer work I have started to coat some of the pieces in white Diani beach sand as in this work – Kaya Couple.
Kaya’s are the sacred forests of the Mijikenda peoples from the East African coast, recently listed as UNESCO National Heritage. Some may contain some Swahili ruins from several hundred years back but a Kaya is a place in an indigenous coastal forest where the traditional leaders conduct their ceremonies. Shrines may be erected but essentially a Kaya is an area of a forest, places of unique biodiversity and beauty. Some of the canoes that I use in my sculpture will have been carved from trees surrounding the Kayas.
This piece is made from two sides of a dug out canoe found as a ruin in Mombasa, the wood has been beautifully etched and eaten, initially by marine insects and then later by termites in my garden producing undulations and shapes that – evoke tidal sand patterns – I have based on a simple wooden base which is hidden by beach sand. Depending on where it ends up it could either remain like that or could go in to a sealed Perspex box. Essentially the piece represents a man and a woman – the woman is pregnant. The materials may arouse curiosity – the arc of the wood, the origin of the boat from which it came and its unknown history, the men that used it to fish, the countless generations of men before them that used similar boats, the tree that it was made from, the trees that seeded that particular tree and so on – it stretches back in to time. I am excited about the application of sand – its a simple idea and obvious in retrospect – the combining of materials that are central to these boats
One of the larger works –Essences combined - is from the floor of a huge canoe from Nyali (you no longer find boats of this size) that was buried in the sand for many years by its original owner – and here it reincarnated with its sand coating – evoking the beach itself.
Along with the larger wooden works I have included some smaller works in clay with beach sand.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Another work in the show was a painting of the Titanic - spelt in this case " Taitanic" don't know if this is a deliberate misspelling or not - probably not - leaving Southampton on its fateful voyage on April 10th, 1912. Interestingly the passengers appear to be mostly Muslim women in veils. Richard says they are dressed in period costume, but they look very coastal Kenyan to me. He tells a story about when he was painting this his first painting of the Titanic, working through the night as he often does, listening to the BBC on the television in the house where he stays, suddenly to his amazement, there is an interview with the last surviving passenger from the Titanic who as a tiny baby was lowered down the side of the boat in a basket.
Both works seemed to capture and anticipate the mood of both Kenya's uncertain recovery from the nightmares of the elections and the dire global situation ahead of financial, ice cap and terrorist meltdowns. Indeed little do we know last August how bad things would get - but Richard Onyango is no ordinary artist. All of this was set in Gallery Baraka which is itself a decommissioned Ismaeli mosque.
Sylvia De lap my friend, musician, artist, organic gardener and astrologer was also in the Lamu show and it was she that coined the phrase about Onyango's work that has stuck in my mind. "He has a great feeling for vehicles" she said.
And indeed he has - the African bus - loved, feared by cyclists, nervous passengers and small cars, reviled when they crash devastatingly which they frequently do, admired by small boys, the kings of the road. The bringers of life to the rural areas, with their extravagant horns, delivering people young old, pregnant, sick and healthy,chickens, food, post, products.
The african truck - where every journey is a safari and an adventure with unknown possibilities - breakdowns, stickings in the mud, accidents,robberies, sexual liaisons and disease,even death, friendship, companionship, humour and excitement.
The African ferry - the one pictured below is the Likoni ferry which normally work quite well but on occasions drifts horrifyingly towards the ocean as all engines fail whilst the largely non swimming passengers wail
The African train - this one the Mombasa Nairobi train, sold a few years back to a South African corporation who appear to have run it further in to the ground - but what a journey and what a train and what memories it holds for people of all walks of life that have used it over the years. I used to go up and down on it regularly - knew every steward on the train, used to shake and rattle through vegetable soup in the fading grandeur of the first class dining room while the ancient fans rotated with ponderous dignity above and the Train Captain dspensed good cheer to tourists many of whom wound up with vegetable soups in their laps.
Not part of the official 2008 Dakar Biennale but but a walking art installation nevertheless - I bought three dolls as modelling fee.
This blog has fallen embarrassingly fallow of late – however this is a new year with new resolutions and on we plough… well where was I? I went to the Dakar Biennale in – when was it – months ago ( – what a city! What a country! The music! The art ! God, I love the music – and I have to detour here on this right away – on the last night I was in Dakar I went to my then newly adopted music haunt – JUST FOR YOU – hardly anyone speaks English in Dakar and so it is quaint that this wonderful venue has a (heavily accented) English name. Now, there you see, it want that difficult to re-start this blog was it Ed? – come on – keep on! They love it! – all that self deprecating twaddle – that diffident banter mixed with penetrating aesthetic revelations. Carlou B performing in London with Youssou N'Dor at Dudu Sarr's launch of Carlou
Back to the music – not the subject of this blog – but never mind. This particular night I had to pay to get in – I was expecting a repeat of the excellent band I had seen there on the same night the previous week but the slightly gruff ticket seller assured me that this band was “Rap”. This trimmed my sails a bit. Calou B was the act and true he had started out as a rapper – or a hip hop poet – and his music all the better for it one suspects - but then has gone on to many other things including writing an opera and incorporating contemporary African sounds with traditional Senagalese instruments and a voice that I rather tritely dubbed a “male African Joan Armatrading”. After the set I went up to meet him and he informed me that his manager Dudu Sarr was due in Nairobi that weekend – I duly met the charming and interesting Dudu who, strangely enough, used to own a contemporary African Art gallery in London until 9/11 somehow knocked him out of the market. Since then Dudu has launched
Carlou B in London with Yousso N’Dor as guest singer– to a rapturous reception and with Peter Gabriel,amongst others, in attendance. Keep an eye out for Carlou B…
Ok, back to visual art. Well the Dakar Biennale is notoriously chaotic and when I asked the organizers for the contacts for Freddy Tsimba , one of the major artists at the show and they googled for the information (and swivelled the flat screen monitor towards me) I began to think that this might be a conspiracy to keep Anglo Saxons out of it leaving smooth French dealers in total control. Well – no it’s not like that. Noone is in control and it’s a lot of fun though it has to be said that this Biennale was considerably scaled down from previous ones – no outside curator in chief, and some of the artist being told they could not bring the pieces they wanted because of financial/logistics considerations. I suspect it’s a classic case of resting on laurels and government underperformance. I met Romuald Hazoume in Porto Novo Benin and he was scathing about it – I thought perhaps a bit too scathing. But many artists have had terrible experiences there – including one that I know of (Mishek Masamvu from Zimbabwe) who is still waiting for the return of his work from about five years ago. Hazoume said one year he told the organizers he was putting on an installation which consisted of him in a fishing boat fishing off the coast of Dakar. Anyway, the president of Senegal opened the Biennale and spoke with considerable passion about things that my inadequate grasp of French suggested were about the central importance of culture in the modern African state – something I couldn’t quite see President Kibaki from Kenya managing. But Hey! this is West Africa, a different ball game. Where the dancers (in Senegal, at any rate) jump like birds and the music is unfailingly brilliant and where jet black skin is rightly coveted. Outdoor pool, Dakar style
Man and beast in perfect harmony, Dakar
For those who know East Africa – I would describe Dakar as a giant Malindi without the Italians. But the place is awash with baguette and croissant – which one can see being pushed down the road in carts of a morning.
And the French Institute, with its sand on the floor of the bar and massive Baobab Tree, art installations in the gardens and constant Jazz – is about the coolest place on earth – hats off to the French. One could never describe the British council as sexy could one? Unless James Bond was in there undercover – neither Gordon Brown, come to that – Blair was our sex symbol – God help us Brits. I digress again. Thatcher? Stop it. Now Cameron… smooth talking Old Etonian – what can I say? Well a friend of mine called him a twatt. Another friend of mine knows him and says he is much to nice to be the PM – nice twatt? Can I be sued for this?
the French Cultural Institute's Bar in Dakar, so much more chic than British Council's reference libraries with their dry descriptions of the University of Hull's student recareation facilities and hefty overseas student fees.
Right. I am months late reporting on the Biennale (help! when is the next one?) and would not have anyway attempted a survey of it – but I will just highlight some of the artists that I met and whose work I loved. Freddy Tsimba whose work is shown beneath….
Detail from Freddy Tsimba's breathtaking installation thatv was on show at Dakar - Freddy plans to produce over a hundred of these ten foot high figures - Dakar organizers had to curtail his plans for a larger installation due to financial constraints last year.
Freddy enjoying the sounds at Just for You - note the trademark Congolese sharp dressing embroidered jacket- atleast as cool as the French Cultural Institue Bar.
is prolific, based Kinshasa and works mostly with spoons and bullets. Ten foot high figures, mostly pregnant women, deformed but in a sort of ruined way so not at all grotesque. Freddy trained at the art school in Kinshasa but then went on to work alongside welding artisans in the city where he perfected his welding skills. The figures themselves are often made of spoons beautifully welded together draped in free hanging suggestions of clothes constructed from bullets. Startling, beautiful and frightening.
James Kokobi from Cote D’ivoire but now based in Germany. Another star of the neglected contemporary African art world. His sculpture installation entitled Darfur was I though one of the best works in the Biennale.
Carved from burnt wood with great sensitivity playing on the notion of , again , ruination, with the figures hollowed out like devastated tree trunks. Beautiful and powerful work. Kokobi also produces wonderful two dimensional work – some of it using coffee as the pigment.
From Dakar I zipped off to Cotonou principally to go and find Gerard Quenum . I had never been to Benin before and expected a sort of scaled down Nigeria. I have not yet made it to Nigeria though it seems that Benin is a vastly more mellow than its neighbour. The old colonial hotel I had selected from my Rough Guide was under renovation and my taxi driver took me to another new hotel (The Acropole) which he assured me would be to my liking, as indeed it was. I set off through the dusty but very peaceful streets to get a sim card the next morning and discovered “Tchif” who was on my list of artists to meet had a studio round the corner. Tchif greeted me in his studio luxuriant in boxer shorts and entourage of hangers on with a computer screen and internet connection in the middle of the floor surrounded by copious art books and magazines featuring his very interesting work. Tchif meanwhile continued working on the floor pushing colour about and revelling in his semi abstract cave painting /google earth work whilst kindly organizing my itineraray for the next few days. Soon we were in Tchifs leather seated four wheel drive mercedes bombing down the road in the usual sea of motorbikes like a big fast fish among minnows.
Smaller work for Tchiff that I have for sale. Tchif at work in his studio a la boxer shorts
Dominique Zinpke and Francis Tchiakpe Tchif are best mates – same age – equally successful. Tchif is the dashing artist with a touch of Bling and Dominique more the woolly liberal – not woolly in his thinking though, at all. It sounds a bit naff to say I have become friends– but –sorry we are now friends. Its one of the perks of my job - one gets to make friends with artists.
Zinpke is prolific and wide ranging in his work ,some would say, to a fault. His paintings are fascinating, extremely intense, precise, Baconesque, almost flow diagram-like explorations of issues from his romantic/sexual life to concepts such as animism which of course dominates Benin culture. I find them fascinating and powerful. This is the work he does alone at home and some say it is his best. His studio is a riot of activity – where he is to be found working on minibus installations with wooden figures festooned in recycled beer can clothes or wooden figures commissioned by the President of Benin but nevertheless containing one of Zinpke’s central themes the reality of big men existing on the backs, or even the heads,of the common man.
I will write soon, I hope, about my meeting with the Romuald Hazoume which was a great honour and extremely interesting.
Gerard Quenum, I saw in the end. Tchiff took me to see him this time with his charming wife at the wheel in her wonderful Benin cloth outfit – Tchiff, chauffered, and lolling in the front seat in his finery– something that no Kenyan man – black or white would normally go for unless they were at death’s door or too drunk to sit upright, but West Africa is different.
Quenum’s studio is on the outskirts of Porto Novo the capital, literally on the edge of the city. His neighbours farming, pigs I seem to remember. Bits of old junk lying around, people scratching a living, and Gerard , whose work had just been in The Financial Times tipped as an up and coming African artist was to be found working on his highly colourful almost childlike canvasses surrounded by his more famous sculptural constructions based mostly on abandoned dolls heads and bodies. Having seen his work in the rarified atmosphere of the October Gallery in London it was interesting seeing it in its natural habitat where the neighbours abandoned scooter or kids toy is either a piece of typical African detritus or, in the hands of a visionary like Quenum, a profound and indeed valuable piece of art. I wondered quite what the neighbours make of him.
Oh and by the way my website is up and running – it’s a start and I hope to expand it greatly in the coming months. Welcome.....
A very Happy New Year to all my very patient readers and if you enjoy reading my work please bully me in to more regular postings – bullying and also any requests for further information about work from the artists I am involved with can be directed to
firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com