When the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello first staged his Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1921 it was greeted by hoots of derision and cries of “Madhouse!”
Described as an absurdist play about the relationships between authors, their characters, the actors and directors, it still makes little sense–to me at least–nearly 100 years later.
To skid down from the heights of intellectual theatre to something I can understand, we had in the 1960s the American Brook Benton and his catchy Boll Weevil Song, which told how the pesky little insect threatened to ruin a cotton crop while just looking for a home.
And now, here in East Africa, the searching goes on with the artist David Thuku creating an elegant exhibition of paperworks devoted to how people move around “looking for temporary accommodation”, or as he also puts it, “niches.”
I take this to be a metaphor for us looking for our own identities and our place in the world, hopefully along the way finding havens of peace for our restless souls.
And if that is so, it is no more than the quest that has driven most serious artists, either directly or subconsciously, throughout history … just another way, in fact, of examining the same old conundrum of who we are and what on earth we are doing here.
So the question becomes not what Thuku’s exhibition is all about but whether or not his concerns have been expressed in a way that helps us to understand ourselves any better.
And do we feel upon leaving the show refreshed, excited and even with our spirits lifted a little? (Not essential–I once left a Francis Bacon retrospective feeling almost suicidal–but nice if it happens.)
Thuku’s exhibition, called Still-in Motion is a fascinating debut for an artist now contracted to the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi.
It presents 23 works made of layers of paper that he has cut and peeled back to reveal other images and colours, then painted and stripped some more. It is on until January 12.
His papercuts fall into three main groups, all linked by the theme of searching; the Motion series, the Empty Seats and those named Temporary Niche.
The Motion pieces are monochrome but in the others–the Seats and Niches–some of the “paperworks” as Thuku aptly calls them, have been further embellished with oil and acrylic glazes, into which have been scratched and then coloured contrasting grids that further intensify their presence.
The glazes create lustrous depths which counterbalance the plain colour fields of the cut-out papers and also perform another function by preventing the strongly graphic finished pieces from looking too much like posters.
In the Motion series that start the exhibition, 13 sequential works examine a figure’s search for space in a series of stop frame images.
They are concerned with how a figure’s intrusion changes both itself and its surrounding space. The framed heads focus attention on the identity of the characters, becoming windows through which you can interact with them.
In the five Seats and five Niches we are first shown inviting empty seats and stools that might offer temporary comfort, while in the niches the figures finally find places in which to settle.
Both Seats and Niches are marked by the subtle employment of thinly sliced horizontal lines that bind the compositions together.
Thuku’s is an intricate, time-consuming technique–it can take him several months to finish a piece–but it pays off in the quality of finish. And if a work is fundamentally well made we are surely encouraged to look further, with our respect for the artist already in place.
If this artist’s work is indeed an old concern in a brand new suit and might at first leave a viewer confused (as it did me), it is worth remembering that Pirandello is now honoured around the world and that the Boll Weevil Song was a huge hit.
I left this exhibition encouraged by seeing an old idea framed by what the critic Robert Hughes called the Shock of the New; a fresh interpretation, coherent, well finished and beautifully presented.
What Hughes was referring to was an entire shift in artistic practice and in our perceptions of what art should be. Yet Thuku’s interest in disrupting the surface by cutting through multiple layers of paper echoes that of other artists in this region including Longinus Nagila, whose practice–in which he scalpels and bends outwards small rectangles and triangles of the paper–creates form, depth and added textural strength to his figurative wall sculptures.
These two are at the forefront of a regional revival in collage and similar techniques that utilise paper as an intrinsic part of the finished work, a medium in itself, and this has to be welcomed for its imaginative reappraisal of that oldest of subject vehicles, the human figure.
It is The Shock of the Old.
And now let me wish you a very happy New Year, with health and prosperity for all.
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