A glimpse of what was, what is and what might have been

The British artist LS Lowry, who died aged 89, painted as he often said, “from childhood to childhood.”

And as he grew ever older the question that nagged at him was, “Will I live?” by which he meant would his work live on after him would his reputation endure?

Lowry reckoned that immediately after an artist’s death his or her work shot up in value, as it was realised there would be no more and buyers paid a premium to get their share. After a few years, he said, values would fall, but then they would eventually rise again as the jury returned with its verdict and the work found its regular place in the market.

Certainly it happened with him. He died in 1976. His prices rocketed and then began to ease back until now, some 40 years later, they have again risen sharply as he enjoys a resurgence, with major exhibitions in the UK and China.

And it will surely happen too with our East African artists when their turn comes to hand back the palette.

Cases in point are currently on view at the National Museums of Kenya on Museum Hill where they are showing pictures by three artists who are dead, have passed on, joined the Choir Celestial and will surely paint no more.

But while the death of an artist heralds an opportunity to appraise a lifetime of effort, put it in context and perhaps pass contentious judgment, this simply will not be possible at the museum.

For although J.B. Mainga, Jimmy Rakuru and Ashif Malamba are all being presented as artists to celebrate, little attempt is made to evaluate their work. Perhaps it is simply too soon.

A selection of their paintings — in the case of Malamba, just one — is stuck on the wall with a brief biography, and we are left to look.

It would have been interesting to see their juvenilia, then a chronological selection of work leading to those paintings completed shortly before their deaths, plus preliminary sketches and notebooks to see how their pictures evolved, some photographs of the three of them at work and play, some indication of their key motivations, hopes and dreams, and a note or two about their techniques how they changed to suit their subjects or conversely remained static as they found their métiers. In other words, proper retrospectives of the three of them if assessments are to be made.

But we have only what we have been given, so what to make of Messrs Mainga, Rakuru and Malamba deceased?

Comparisons, they say, are odious and certainly on this thin showing it is difficult to make any judgment. I will say however that Mainga seems to be the most innovative of the three, Rakuru the most academically accomplished and Malamba for sure the most fun.

John B. Mainga (1954 – 2000) was known for pictures inspired by both day-to-day activities and folklore. Here just seven pieces are shown from the family collection held by the museum, but, with their dedicated frames they give a fair idea of the scope, intricate detail and high finish of his work. The delicate superimpositions of faces in his paintings is a particular joy and is a style pounced on by many other regional artists.

Jimmy Rakuru (1976 – 2012) was born in Siaya, and devoted himself to documenting lakeside life. Some 13 oils and acrylics are on show here, and all celebrate his interest in a realistic, thankfully unmannered, portrayal of his home area. Employing at times a curiously chalky palette, these are nevertheless straightforward scenes that anyone could enjoy.

It is an irony that the finest picture in the hall is a sensitive portrait of the artist — one that Rakuru himself must surely have appreciated — by Boniface Maina. It is on the flyer introducing Rakuru’s work.

Ashif Malamba (1972 – 2015) is represented by only one painting, a heavily outlined group portrait of members of the Maasai Mbili Collective, based in Kibera.

Malamba, who trained as a sign writer — a continuing influence in MM paintings — joined the collective in 2003 and quickly made his mark as both a significant artist and a leader in the slum community. He was popular for his sly, cynical and witty street art, and most recently had begun to use recycled media like sheets of plastics.

Now all three of these vibrant talents are gone. Not one of them reached 50 two not even 40.

And so a bouquet to the museum for letting us see their works a barb for not doing it thoroughly enough, but huge thanks anyway to the curator and the heirs and successors of these three lost friends for giving us something of what was, what is, and a glimpse perhaps of what might have been.