Art media

Kamwathi’s art harmonizes with the soulful rhythms of our time

Art

Kamwathi’s art harmonizes with the soulful rhythms of our time


Peterson Kamwathi’s study for ‘Dunia Wiki Hii II’ at the Onne Off Gallery in Nairobi on March 5. PICTURE | MARGARETTE WA GACHERU | NMG

margarettawagacheru_img

Summary

  • Kamwathi experiments and innovates using many techniques from her artistic toolbox, from drawing, painting, printing and stenciling to airbrushing and blending subtle hues in her works.
  • Kamwathi’s art is impenetrable. Others simply describe it as surreal. He works on different levels of meaning, highlighted in one of the most complex, colorful and engaging paintings in the exhibition.

Peterson Kamwathti’s current art exhibition titled P(a)lace, which opened last weekend at Nairobi’s One Off Gallery, quickly revealed that the artist has not let up during the covers -fire of Covid-10.

Rather, he used confinement to reflect on his own experience and interrogate the concepts of time and space (or place) in the broadest philosophical sense.

In this body of work, Kamwathi, one of Kenya’s most acclaimed conceptual artists, examines time and space at individual and collective levels as well as at local and global levels.

And it does so in an inventive but disturbing way by tapping into inexplicable feelings of loneliness or even angst that some may have felt during those difficult days.

Kamwathi also experiments and innovates using many techniques from his artistic toolbox, from drawing, painting, printing and stenciling to airbrushing and blending subtle hues in his works.

He also uses a wide range of mediums, including charcoal, colored pencils, carbon paper and pastels, while working through a complex set of concepts, layer by layer. He even works with maps to question the notions of limits, borders, confinement as they have existed in Kenya’s present and past.

Some of Kamwathi’s ‘experiments’ appear in the exhibition as ‘Studies’ for the larger work, ‘Dunia Wiki Hii II’. One depicts a man doing a handstand on a pair of skulls. In another, the man does a handstand atop a large buffalo skull, which the artist tells BDLife is significant. That the live buffalo is generally considered a tourist attraction, and if it manifests itself in art, it is classified as mere “souvenir art”.

art2

‘Beacon II’ by Kamwathi at the gallery. PICTURES | MARGARETTE WA GACHERU | NMG

“But no one can say that about a buffalo skull,” Kamwathi says. “It has a completely different meaning,” he adds with a smile.

“I don’t paint,” he told a collector of his art. “I assemble.

It’s a way of saying that his art is layered both in terms of the techniques and the meanings infused into each layer.

Kamwathi’s art is impenetrable. Others simply describe it as surreal. He works on different levels of meaning, highlighted in one of the most complex, colorful and engaging paintings in the exhibition. In ‘Frames of Reference II’ he pays attention to both the individual and the group, each confined to their part of the painting, their part delimited by specific confinement lines that cross the painting in a geometric style.

The piece uses specific images as symbols of time. From pre-colonial times, there is a section devoted to fossilized rocks like those found in archaeological excavations near Lake Magadi.

In another section of the work is a group of crouching individuals who could be migrants or even Mau Mau detainees. The ambiguity of the image is part of what is disturbing. Then, right next to the squatters is a chess piece.

art3

Kamwathi’s Frames of Reference II at the gallery. PICTURES | MARGARETTE WA GACHERU | NMG

She is the Queen, a reference (he suggests) to the Queen who presided over the British Empire when Kenya was suddenly confined by colonial borders. Then in the foreground of the work is a boy stretching back, his fingers just below another layer of meaning into which a woman bends as if to almost touch her toes or carry an invisible burden.

In all of Kamwathi’s works in P(a)laces, the issue of confinement is evident, whether the individual is standing alone on a pedestal as in ‘Beacon III’, or leaning on their separate mat as in ‘Frame of Reference II’ or crouched as in ‘Untitled/Noble Savage’. In almost all of the works there is an awkwardness in the form of the individual, apart from the acrobats who seem to have some control over their bodily movement.

There is one of his paintings that suggests the possibility of freedom from trappings expressed as chicken wire or cobwebs or roadside huts, all of which are visible in one or another of his works. And it is that of a little boy standing alone, distant, above the top of a mountain, as if floating and free.

Yet, when expressing my curiosity about the table overturned above the little boy’s head, Kamwathi admits that the table could also be seen as a confined object capable of limiting the boy’s freedom of movement.