Gor Soudan & Paul Onditi's 'Another World is Possible' By Zihan Kassam
Often what seems real is just an illusion. From an affinity to organise thought, we ascribe form to shadow and word to whisper. These constructs soon become our reality. Perhaps no one can better deconstruct these ideas than the conceptual artist. Filtering truth from tale, they become the doctors of civilisation.
‘Another World is Possible’ at Alliance Francaise is a contemporary exhibition in which two revolutionary Kenyan artists reveal their diagnosis of humanity. What brought such sting to the human condition? As symptoms of corruption, capitalism and resolute social norms plague our experience, x-ray style images are used to isolate curious emotion and extract the essence of existence.
Paul Onditi 'Subdued' 2012
From The Kuona Trust Art Centre in Kilimani, two abstract thinkers have been preoccupied in their container-studios for weeks. An investigation of what ails society has culminated in a subdued palette and sombre imagery; a crack in the rose-coloured shades.
Highly regarded for his illusive figures and peculiar medium, Paul Onditi has been stirring the mix since his return from Germany in 2010, where he lived for many years and attended the Offenbach Hochschule Fur Gestaltung (University of Arts). Gor Soudan, with a BA in Sociology and Philosophy from Egerton University, is a young radical whose politically tinged ‘Crow’ series has continued to evolve. He may have caught your attention with his notoriously blunt outpourings on the popular Kuona Trust art blog.
In a lucky preview of the show, we caught a glimpse of what was happening behind the scenes. Eyes sensitive to the world, it seems both artists have opted for a dark lens this time. As they adjust to an orb of black and white, we witness the mottled spectacle of this transformation. We uncover a reality where the human figure is amorphous, shadows speak and loneliness prevails.
Using Rotring and Indian ink, acrylics and his favourite Zinc White oil on either plastic film or refined sackcloth, Onditi’s vague backgrounds and indistinct figures play with the notion that ideas are the only truth and that thoughts manifest in to reality. Blurry skeletal figures allude to the notion that the tangible, including the carnal, might not exist. Pointing to an imprinted translucent film, with its usual mellow contrasts, he explains that “These images are x-rays, anagrams and stories at once.” The painting he points at is called ‘Smokey’ and it reveals a forlorn figure staring helplessly at its viewer. His form is murky and the background a hazy landscape of browns and blacks. The man’s vapoury form slowly dissolves in to the ether.
Describing a large painting called ‘Duped,’ Onditi speaks of the emptiness in his lone ranger’s expression. Another desolate figure, with that same purposeless look in his eyes, has scale drawn to his right. “Though we try to scale life from one letter or number to another and make sense of everything,” Onditi explains, “the mother of all truths is black and white, like all of existence.”
Paul Onditi, 'Duped' 2012
‘Duped’ is worth a thousand words, the formless scribbles that permeate this work disclosing the limitations of language. As Onditi himself struggles to find the right words to explain exactly how societal constructs leave us vacant and wanting, the images in his painting speak in perfect prose. We see three feet in sequence under a window. One is attired in a formal shoe, one in a slipper and one is barefoot. To most people, the image implies a reverse evolution. In fact, it speaks of a higher progression and the path back to spirit.
‘The Puzzle’ is a large panel board laid on the floor at Alliance Francaise and patched with Onditi’s smaller works. We see a watery image of a circus skeleton and his unicycle, a desolate and disappearing blue phantom on a bicycle and other obscure men trying to survive on Onditi’s slippery medium. From his new grey series, we catch the cloudy image of another isolated man, his expression of course despondent, standing under what appears to be a shower and a street light at once. In other squares, we meet with Onditi’s trademark figures drenched in futile letters, their disproportional hands distraught as they grasp for the truth.
Certain pieces from ‘The Puzzle’ were based on words that Onditi’s fans had used to describe his older paintings. At this particular exhibition, he will offer a chance to pen any thoughts inspired by segments of this large work. He’ll take your phrases and descriptions and use them to create new images. In this way, he hopes to create a cycle of images, each an outcome of the descriptions from the last.
In his painting ‘Subdued,’ the solemn man we’ve now come to recognize is lost in thought again, his shadow darker and more real than his person. As he tries to find meaning in his current reality, empty words scrawl across the canvas.
“These works are about talking to power,” Gor Soudan jumps in. Soudan, who works with black and white tempera, chalk, deliberate newspaper cut-outs and playing cards on corrugated cardboard, has a bleak impression of Kenya’s current political landscape. “Those in so-called power are not necessarily the legitimate authorities,” he states, and adds that “This place is never stable. It’s just one coalition after the other.” Like Onditi, Soudan also explores the life of the disenfranchised or “those who perch at the window and watch the people at the party.” He looks at how decisions made by those in power can negatively affect those without any.
Not quite as muddled and yet equally obscure, Soudan’s paintings are much starker and darker than Onditi’s. His acrylic drip method combined with jagged tears in the cardboard generates a crude but defined feel. New to us, it appears his latest crows are as bold as his daring style.
They’re no longer afraid of their perpetrator. In his painting ‘The Shock of Being Seen,’ the black crow is again the protagonist. This time however, he has recently learned that his presence is realized. As he looks others in the eye, they now look right back. In this particular painting, the whimsical human figure with an outstretched arm appears neither good nor evil but simply the first of its kind to acknowledge the crow.
Gor Soudan, 'The shock of being seen'' 2012
Most of Soudan’s black crows are the oppressed Kenyan transmuted in to winged form but it’s difficult to say whether the white crows are the persecutors or just different colours of the same species. As Soudan plays with certain ideas, he himself doesn’t know. “It’s simply crow as man and man as crow,” he tells us, “and until I underwent a painful deconstruction of the visual, the crows were colourful, in green and red. Now they are just black and white.”
On the landing of the staircase at Alliance Francaise, ‘Do You Know Who I Am?” reveals a disorderly shadow, larger than life. It haunts with its cluttered composition. The man portrayed has crow legs and waves about a stick. Soudan tells us that somewhere within the mixed media, perhaps at his decrepit core, there’s actual literature from the new constitution. “The man also carries the coat of arms under one arm,” he explains. In not so many words, Gor leaks how this work was born from the “nose-pinchers” in our society; custodians of the law who undermine the common crow.
Gor Soudan, 'Do you know who I am' 2012
Admittedly, a few of Gor Soudan’s works might leave you scratching your head. His ‘War in the Name of Love’ is not as visually impressive as some of his other works. A cartoonish stick figure in blue tempera drip bears an overbearing life jacket that is stuck to the canvas. Soudan is one of those people that live in his head. In executing a great idea, he can sometimes neglect the aesthetics. The life jacket represents a flak jacket, he explains. Soudan was illustrating a noble idea. He wanted to show how, “War is just war and a timeless excuse for aggression.”
Look for Soudan’s ‘One Eyed King’ and other shapeless white shadows symbolizing the non-conformist and the repertoire of raw and often painful emotions they assume as a consequence.
In the strange globe that Gor Soudan and Paul Onditi have forged, they’ve unpeeled counterfeit colours and unnecessary compliance so that you might relate to some of the more natural expressions we portray. The artists encourage you to think with your mind and not your eyes. As you face certain dark truths at the show, whether you’re the black crow or a ghost on a lonely street, take courage. Your plight might be well worth your refusal to conform to a society that’s unwell.
Visit Paul Onditi and Gor Soudan at Kuona Trust Art Centre off Dennis Pritt Road on Likoni Close. Another World is Possible’ will show at the Alliance Francaise until Wednesday, February 11th.
The writer of this article Zihan Kassam is the STAR art Correspondent