by Don Handa
“Who are these ‘Young Guns’? Where have they come from? Who are their mentors? What are their concerns, their dreams, their aspirations?”
These questions, simultaneously pertinent and tedious, are the object of Young Guns, Circle Art Gallery’s exhibition of emerging voices in Nairobi’s art scene. With its conspicuously all male cast of twenty six, drawn from various artist spaces within Nairobi – communal work spaces, artist collectives, and private studios – the exhibition attempts to capture the expanding scope of artistic practice within the city. This complete absence of women artists, from the outset, lends an irregularity to Young Guns.
The exhibition includes artists from more widely recognized spaces such as the Kuona Trust, the Godown Arts Centre, and the Maasai Mbili Collective, and those belonging to recently constituted, artist run spaces such as Brush Tu, Dust Depot, and the Wajukuu Art Centre. Alongside these are a slew of artists with their own private workspaces. There is also a nod to Kampala in the inclusion of Dennis Mubiru and Ian Mwesiga.
Young Guns unfolds unevenly, inconsistently. The exhibition cites the myriad concerns of the artists represented therein, but the promise of an exploration of and an expounding on these preoccupations remains unfulfilled. Among the wealth of works on show one encounters individual, self-contained moments, events and suggestions varied in their potency and often bearing little kinship to their counterparts. Certain themes do, in fact, make repeat appearances across multiple works: a preoccupation with the material and circumstances of urban living marks the outings of Joakim Kwaru and Dennis Mubiru; Churchill Ongere, David Thuku, and Ngugi Waweru consider group dynamics, positionality and individual agency; and in Isaiah Mwangi and Boniface Maina we find depictions of socio-political strife and its aftermath. Unfortunately, these count as mere flitting glances where scrutiny would be preferable.
Young Guns means for us to take heed of emerging “bold and fresh voices”, as they are characterized in the accompanying catalogue, so it does not hurt any to make note of the hits, the misses, the in-betweens. There is pleasure to be had in combing through Footprints 5, Elias Mung’ora’s mixed media palimpsest of the traces of human activity borne by physical surfaces. Spread across two canvases, at a considerable 116 x 300 cm, Mung’ora’s approximation of a time-worn, available-for-public-consumption wall looms large, bearing numerous stains and markings – paint, text, images, dirt – realized through a process of that combines manipulation of acrylic paint and photocopy transfers of dozens of photographs, the layers of images and paint suggesting a collapsing of time and memory. This narrative facility is echoed in Into the Ghetto, a densely populated, similarly large work by Joakim Kwaru. Here buildings and cars and flowers and fishes and clothes hangers and TV antennae, even a stray game of tic tac toe, in blues and yellows and purples, jostle for room in an urban landscape that teems with life.
Some formalist impulses shine through in the precision of Mwini Mutuku’s laser-inscribed MDF panels, as well as the signature layers and excisions in David Thuku’s triptych of paradoxically desolate compositions; paradoxical because the title, Freedom of My Utopia, hints at something sunnier . The latter could very well be a deliberate maneuver on the artist’s part. Elsewhere, such deft experiments with media extend to Sydney Mang’ong’o’s abstract paper collages.
The candy-coloured, almost delectable palette in Michael Musyoka’s Hunting Grounds #4 belies the sinister relationship between members of the public and law enforcement officers, and Paul Njihia’s Backbenchers is an indictment of our education system’s near pathological emphasis on grades. Churchill Ongere unleashes a throng of amoebic bodies across a large, black expanse of black. This crowding and haggling, this clamor for space by Ongere’s figures, what-/who- ever they are, makes the pulsating tableau one the most adept of the works on offer in here. Also notable is Isaiah Mwangi’s depiction of an interrogation room, in which the urgency of his hatching has the inverse effect of producing a quiet, chilling tension.
Not all the attempts presented here are quite as successful, however.
Alex Njoroge and Boniface Maina’s meditations on war and peace, while bearing the imagery of destruction and loss – featuring tanks, debris, and an anemic mix of greys and pinks – remain unresolved. They fall short of achieving the fully fledged, affecting commentary to which they aspire, offering condensed bullet points instead. An unfortunate misstep takes place nearby: the symbolism of Peteros Ndunde and Lincoln Mwangi’s collaborative video work collapses under the weight of a verbose, drudgingly detailed explanation that saps the mystery from the work, and dulls the curiosity with which a viewer could come into the work; perhaps there is such a thing as too much context.
A wood carving of a buffalo skull shows Kepha Mosoti’s technical prowess but remains bloodless, and Dennis Muraguri’s large woodcut print, Kudandia, for all its splendor, is marked by an over-familiarity when viewed alongside other works in this show. It should be said that in an exhibition of emerging artists, the inclusion of Dennis Muraguri is a tad incongruous.
Moving through Young Guns, one meets the various artists – some middling, some promising, some accomplished in their own right – but the ideas, anxieties, fixations, and possibilities of which they are in pursuit do not come into full view. While the expectation that a single exhibition could exhaustively deal with all the themes with which this crop of artists is concerned is untenable, the challenge experienced in trying to forge connections between these at times disparate works is wearying. Furthermore the glaring absence of female artists in a pool of twenty six, no small number by any measure, raises questions about the representation of the voices of female artists in these spaces dedicated to art-making. It is the gaps and inconsistencies that diminish the thrust of Young Guns, leaving in its place, an air of inconstant sampling.
Young Guns | Circle Art Gallery | 7th June-7th July 2017