Issues News

Nudes make for good art, but not all

I wrote this piece in August and it was published in The Nairobian. I thought I might reproduce it here.

The other day I came across quite a thoughtful Facebook post by a woman who poured out her heart on the merits and demerits of posing nude for a painting. What struck me was how deeply and hauntingly reflective her piece was.


She proudly pointed out that her body deserves to be celebrated and honoured. “Why should I be ashamed of a vessel which has served me well, which despite innumerable illnesses, pregnancy, and breastfeeding and various abuse from me, has housed my soul and nurtured my dreams?” she posed.
Her essay, which, among other things, explored moral and religious issues as appertains to nude paintings, got me thinking; while there are women who will not think twice about disrobing and baring all, nudes are more complicated than that, as testified by the dilemma of this woman, an artist in her own right, and who, in her confession, is approaching 50.
“…here I am middle-aged, on the cusp of my 50th birthday, with everything in my body heading south with effortless ease, ready, nay, baying to pose nude for a painting…” she wrote.
Seeing as we are living in the age of the digital camera and camera enabled smart phones, more and more women are baring all and somehow their images are finding their way on the Internet. The debate over who released these images is neither here nor there. Suffice to say that the ‘damage’ has been done and team-‘mafisi’, have salivated on them and shared them.
Remember how musician Kaz caused an Internet furore when her nude images were shared far and wide. There is also the more recent case of a Ugandan musician, who claimed that her Nigerian ex-boyfriend had leaked her nude photos on the Internet, as a way of revenge for being dumped. What’s with female musicians and leaked nude photos anyway?
Well, if you ask me, there is nothing artistic in these photos; in fact I would call them trashy. They come nowhere near nude paintings, which can only be appreciated by those who treasure the finer things in life.
Lord Kennethe Clark, in his seminal book The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form, makes the distinction between the naked body and the nude. He states that to be naked is to be deprived of clothes, and implies embarrassment and shame, while a nude, as a work of art, has no such connotations.
From the above explanation alone, you will then realise that a nude painting is a work of high art. My Facebook friend’s post should be viewed purely in that light; hence her dilemma. While she has come to term with her sexuality and is thus not afraid to celebrate her body as a work of art, she has to reckon with the realities of life and societal/religious expectations.
She makes reference to obstacles posed by religion when she says: “Christianity, as it is presented, equates the female body with sin. I resent that. I do not consider my body sinful; I think it is wonderfully and beautifully made…”
Still, as much as nudes as regarded as works of high art, it must not be forgotten that eroticism forms the core of their attraction. Says Clark: “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse, in the spectator, some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so, it is bad art…”
Here is Kenya Patrick Mukabi is known for his nudes, featuring plus size women. Mukabi, who moved his base from the Godown to the Railway Museum, told ‘The Nairobian’ in a past interview, that he gets volunteers who disrobe and model for him. Now that is art.
The other person known for such kinds of work is coast-based Richard Onyango.
As for my Facebook friend, I urge her to follow her heart; it is always right, the heart that is.

Events Issues News Personalities Reviews

Uhuru Kenyatta’s art gift for George Bush

While President Uhuru Kenyatta was visiting the US, greater focus was, understandably, on the details of the trade talks as well as the fact that Kenya was trying to mend fences with Barrack Obama’s (Cousin Barry to some Kenyans) country, seeing as America’s ‘Choices have Consequences’ edict, in reference to Uhuru’s ICC case,  had pulled the two countries apart.

Focus was to later dramatically shift to President Kagame’s daughter (you know how that one went). Much later Uhuru was pictured in a Stetson – here in Kenya we call the godfather or godpapa – holding somewhat oversized American cowboy boots – gifts he was given by Texas cowboys, who also made him an honorary citizen. Although he eventually did visit George Bush Jnr – he of ‘you are either with us or the enemy’ – not much was said about a piece of ‘cloth’ the two were pictured holding.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and George Bush holding the painting.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and George Bush holding the painting.


Well, that piece of cloth was a painting Uhuru donated the former US president – don’t ask how they came to know each other, I don’t know either. Turns out the Uhuru appreciates art – Kenyan art to be specific – that he considered it important enough to give it to a former US president as a gift.

Patrick Kinuthia's painting  Si Hoja.
Patrick Kinuthia’s painting Si Hoja.

I did a little digging and realised that the painting is titled Ni hoja, lakini sio hoja (It is an issue but not an issue) – confusing huh? Well that is what artists do sometimes; confuse people – done by Patrick Kinuthia.


The painting, an acrylic on canvas, measuring 100 by 150 cm, features a couple standing before a group of women in an open air market. From the picture, it would appear like the man is trying to tell the woman, with baby strapped on her back something. The woman is either ignoring the man or is pretending not to hear.

From the picture is not clear whether the man and woman are a couple or not. Curiously though the man is clutching a package with the letters VCT clearly written on it. Could it be that the couple have just from a VCT centre? Who between, the man and the woman is saying the words ni hoja, lakini sio hoja? More importantly, why would they chose to have such a conversation in a public place.

Banana Hill-based artist Patrick Kinuthia.
Banana Hill-based artist Patrick Kinuthia.

Still, could the man be a health worker trying to convince the women in a market place to go and have their HIV statuses checked? Questions, questions and more questions. Incidentally, that is what a good artist is supposed to do; provoke your mind into thinking. And as they say, you take what you see in a piece of art. Hopefully, George Bush will have his own interpretation if he hangs the painting in his office.

William Ndwiga, the director of The Little Art Gallery says he received a call from the Kenyan ambassador to the US, asking for a ‘high value painting that can be displayed in a museum in the USA, for posterity’. He disclosed that the piece of art was bought for sh350,000 (approx 4,000 usd). “I see The Little Art Gallery running Art exhibitions by Kenyans in Kenyan embassies, around the world, to showcase what Kenya has to offer to the world. I have already started this process,” explains Ndwiga.

William Ndwiga, projects coordinator, The Little Art Gallery.
William Ndwiga, projects coordinator, The Little Art Gallery.

Kinuthia’s bio says his paintings ‘reflect both a freestyle approach as well as a disciplined observer of human and animal form behaviour’. Born in 1967, Kinuthia worked for Citizens Cinema Cooperation as a poster artist for its cinema halls, making scenery and portraits under the tutelage of Pakistani artist Mohammed Rafiq. Kinuthia is based in Banana Hill.


Events Issues News

Unsellable art: What you need to know

Below is a press statement from the Network of Kenya Visual Artists (NKVA), who will be holding an exhibition, at the National Museums of Kenya starting Tuesday May 21 to June 4, 2013, titled Unsellable Art


50 years on; it is about time that visual arts in Kenya had a vital voice for good governance

Since its inception with collaboration of the Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs through one of their initiatives, the Non State Actors Support Programme (NSA – NET), together with the European Union and the National Museums of Kenya, the Network of Kenya Visual Artists (NKVA) became the first national network ever put together by visual artists.

NKVA has come at the right time with the ushering in of a new government. A key agenda of the new government is job creation. The NKVA realizes this quest, and more so because it is embracing the concept of collective action for more economic empowerment. By sharing information, communicating better and finding viable solutions to artists’ common challenges, the network hopes to create more demand for art as well as sensitize the general population about art, for better engagement and business.

NKVA convinced that the myth that art is expensive can be addressed by repackaging it and also communicating the same to the target market. The quest for aesthetics in homes is intensifying especially with the expanding middleclass and therein lies the market that needs to be satisfied.

This power of unity amongst Kenyan artists will serve to protect the Kenyan artist from exploitation by middlemen and also encourage upcoming artists to pursue art as a career that can generate continuous and predictable income.

NKVA will use the one year it will be under the umbrella of NMK to reach out to all visual artists nationally and establish regional links. The exhibition questions where art in Kenya is today as Kenya prepares her jubilee celebration of 50 years.

This art exhibition “Unsellable Art” is an exhibition of extreme expressions by artists that address matters that touch on society and the individual. The concept is what is being referred to as ‘unsellable’ because normally people want to buy a piece of art that is ‘nice’ and beautiful with happy themes. Nobody wants to buy a painting that will remind them of injustices and other ‘uncomfortable’ issues of society. Unsellable does not mean the art works are ugly, on the contrary they are very beautiful pieces, strong and done by some of the top artists in Kenya. It is when one looks closely that they see the theme.

 The artists were given the freedom to showcase those pieces of art that they feel have a story behind them. Each art piece is accompanied by a caption so that the audience will be able to explore and interrogate the mind of the artist. Similar exhibitions by NKVA in the regions are taking place at Mombasa (Alliance de Mombasa 17 May – 7 June) and Kisumu Museum (25 May – 8 June)