Where Have I Seen this Painting Before?

Photos by Kevin Tosh.

“Where have I seen this painting before?”

I’m standing in one of the upstairs rooms of The Art Space gallery when this thought occurs to me. It’s the opening night of David Thuku’s and Michael Musyoka’s exhibition “This for That”. I’ve never met either of the artists before, so it completely blows my mind when I’m hit by a deeply intense feeling of deja vu the moment I walk up the stairs and into this room. While I’m standing there trying to figure it out, Tosh quickly places his finger on why it seems so familiar. 

As it turns out, we saw this exact piece back when it was a work in progress at the Brush Tu Studios, when we went to chat with Elias Mung’ora. At the time, it was somewhere in between pencil sketch and the finished item that now hangs in front of us: a series of hands holding up a structure of beam balances and pulleys, passing items on to one another. It’s a depiction of the “this for that” that titles this exhibition– the practice of trading favors and of questionable exchanges that underpins much of our society.

Another set of paintings depicts a deserted city, crossroads of streets with names like “Pawn Street” illuminated by street lamps. The windows of the buildings are all brightly lit. But yet, the streets are empty and deserted. On one building the sign “Chai Ni Hapa” (Tea is Here) is taped over a boarded door, which immediately evokes the way in which Chai has been used euphemistically to ask for a bribe in Kenya.

With Michael Musyoka and some of his paintings.

The other artist in this exhibition, David Thuku, is also based at the Brush Tu Studio. For this show, he is displaying works created on paper using the sgraffito method. The top layer of the paper is black, which is where he begins. He then cuts through to reveal layer after layer of the different shapes and colors that will make up the final piece. He compares this artistic process to that of meeting and engaging with a new person and gradually discovering who they are: at first we see them only superficially, but as we get to know them better and they become more familiar to us, this initial flat image acquires more layers, more colors and more complexity. 

David Thuku discusses his work at the launch of “This for That”.

Along one wall, a series of Thuku’s pieces each depict a character pointing to their right, a representation of a culture of blame and of deflecting responsibility to someone other than one’s self, while at the same time having the blame being deflected upon you. The last character being pointed at is a child, and the child, too, points to the right, but there is no other painting there. Instead his index finger gestures at the window of the room. This raises the question: will the next generation bring an end to the blame game? or does it simply become a cycle, feeding back to the beginning?

This question comes back to me as I reflect on Michael Musyoka’s paintings: on the way in which the Quid Pro Quid structures are held up by hands without faces, on the empty streets where buildings announce their chai. The system efficiently moves, but its actors are invisible. It reminds me of how we constantly have corruption scandals in Kenya, where billions of shillings are lost and the question of who is to be held accountable quickly devolves into a drama of passing on the blame and deflection. And it also leaves me wondering about the ways in which each of us could be one of those invisible actors of the system.

Wambui Kamiru, owner of The Art Space, David Thuku and Michael Musyoka, in conversation with the guests at the opening of “This For That”.

“This for That” runs at the Art Space until Saturday the 9th of April. On Tuesday the 5th of April, the artists will be available for a conversation and Q&A starting 2pm at the Art Space. (See the Facebook event here)