“Gravity”, a digital art exhibition was recently launched in Nairobi. It sought to interrogate the different expressions and understandings of the colour black. Black as pigment, lived experience; as absence and cloak; as nightmare and crowning glory.
Photographers Mutua Matheka, Thandiwe Muriu, Osbourne Macharia and Joe Makeni plus illustrator Jeffrey Otieno from Prokraft Studios showcased pieces that defined “black” from their perspective while remaining consistent with their personal styles.
Held at their joint office premises, the project was unabashedly stylish self-promotion but a closer examination reveals considerable negotiation with the literal and metaphorical meanings and possibilities of the colour. Indeed the exhibition had been developed over the course of 10 months and curated by Kuona Trust Director, Sylvia Gichia.
With Osbourne Macharia’s “Melanino” series we first notice the absence of expected blackness through use of albino models. Secondly, to counter the narrative of negative depictions of Africa and these people who embody a ‘different kind of black’, Osbourne poses his subjects powerfully. They fill the large canvases, shot up-close with torsos proudly held up with calm nobility.
Softly lit from the back and sides, each character traps the beams in various ways: the pilot in his hair, the DJ full on the face, the top of the surgeon’s head is gleaming as is the soot-free ridges on the fireman’s face while the policewoman nabs it on the steel plates on her uniform. These images have been further manipulated to take on a dreamlike quality and achieve what Osbourne calls neo-contemporary portraiture.
The four-panel puzzle-work of Thandiwe Muriu, a fashion photographer known for contained explosion of vivid colours features a dark-skinned girl painted a deeper shade of black. Jewellery swishes and drips out of her mouth, is glued to her forehead or falls as a steel curtain over her eyes. Silver undertones add sharp contrast to this ebony terrain. Eyes closed or obscured throughout the series, the model’s cool confidence and cheek (a pink tongue brazenly pokes out in one piece) makes Thandiwe’s message quite clear…black is beautiful.
A marked departure from his counterparts in medium and dips into the colour spectrum, the “Heroes” in Jeffrey Otieno’s work are of African and Brazilian descent. They’re global icons of black excellence. Save Wangari Maathai, everyone else is a recognizable one-name superstar: Lupita, Rudisha, Pele and Mandela. They’re all beautifully caricatured in broad grin or sagacious pose and painted in rich hues.
Mutua Matheka’s panels are much darker though. His subjects are burdened by their skin tone. Nairobi rests upon a clean-shaven man’s head and back. He is Atlas’s cousin with familiar skylines shrunk to fit, replicated and distorted to form new patterns; a burden to be borne all the same. This architect’s most striking piece shows black hands bursting out of a canvas’ margin. A field of sorrow and frustration, fingers desperately claw at the air and each other; at the blank expanse of white canvas they strain to possess, seeking to shed their blackness.
There isn’t a strong narrative thread running through Joe Makeni’s collection. The subjects vary from women to a car and a man running from a mask-faced monster. It would seem that black is used as a shading technique with the darkness rolling in from the canvas edges as charcoal smog. Joe’s most fully developed piece is the stuff of nightmares. A Godzilla-size masked beast chases a terrified man down a familiar Nairobi street to depict that ‘most of our limits are actually in our minds’.
Prokraft Studios intends to hold similar exhibitions thrice a year. The goal is to encourage these commercial artists to create and exhibit work that Thandiwe gleefully describes as “the things clients would never ask us to do”. It’s a good start. More power to them.
The exhibition “Gravity” took place from July 30th – August 14th, 2015 at Suite 102, Blue Violets Plaza. Kamburu