Kenyan artist back from Canada to stage a solo show at Alliance Francaise

By: MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

Rakeeb Hassan was born in Bangladesh, but he was brought up artistically in Kenya where he went to art school at the Creative Art Centre in Nairobi and even formed an artists’ collective in the late 1990s called The Palette with some of his CAC classmates, including Maggie Otieno, Shake Malelele and several others.

A professionally-trained journalist and published poet in Dhaka before he woke to his true calling, to be a painter, Rakeeb had a big brother living and working in Kenya. So he came here in 1991 and not long thereafter joined CAC.

Through the 1990s Rakeeb was a regular on the Nairobi art scene, painting and exhibiting everywhere from Gallery Watatu and what was then called the French Cultural Centre to Paa ya Paa, Goethe Institute and other bygone art spaces like La Galleria in Westlands.

But towards the end of the last millennium, Rakeeb took off for Canada and settled for the decade in Montreal where he has a spacious studio, a lovely family but a soul that’s kept calling him back to Kenya.

So once again, Rakeeb responded to that inner impulse that compelled him to come back to his artistic home where he’s currently got a soulful solo exhibition at Alliance Francaise entitled Ethereal Assemblage.

Semi-abstract in style, the whole ground floor of the former French Cultural Centre (which got its name change to Alliance Francaise soon after he’d gone abroad) is filled with shapely colourful figures which you might need to be told are female.

On the other hand, all the beautiful but enigmatic beings in his expansive assemblage are gracefully designed, each having a fascinating story; but they are all told not with realistic figures but with voluptuous lines and multi-coloured symbols.

VISUAL PUZZLES

To find all his significant symbols and then decipher them takes one’s full attention since they are not exactly straight-forward.

“I don’t want my images to be too obvious; I’d like people to think about what they see,” said Rakeeb whose women never have an explicit set of eyes, nose or even ears.

“But once you catch on to his kind of visual coding, it isn’t difficult to see and understand the symbols, be they butterflies, sunflowers, fresh fruits in a village market or a luminous moon which becomes for him a symbol of hope and promise.

Rakeeb admits his paintings are rather like visual puzzles which the viewer must explore mentally, having the one critical clue, that every line, colour and shape has a significance, symbolic value and meaning.

Sometimes the symbols are not complicated like his Sunflower imagery since he says the flower is not only valued universally for its beauty and brightness. For him, the sunflower is also a symbol of the beauty of the woman.

Remembering that Rakeeb was a poet before he became a painter, one can assume that poetic sensibility is infused in his heart and every brush stroke.

What’s interesting is that in the decade that he’s been away in Montreal, he’s never forgotten his love for Kenya (where he chose to become a citizen soon after graduating from CAC in 1995). Indeed, there’s a dreamy sense of nostalgia in a good deal of his art. It’s easily seen in a work like ‘Village Market,’ which again is steeped in symbols but reflects the earthen colours of the Kenyan countryside.

There’s an echo of the city in the distance, but just as Nairobi’s outer edges are filled with peri-urban gardens as well as makeshift markets, so they are all there in Rakeeb’s work.

Dedicated to those whose lives were lost at Westgate and Garissa University as well as to the free-thinking bloggers who died defending freedom of speech in Bangladesh, Rakeeb says his art is not meant to be mournful or maudlin.

Instead, it’s meant to be seen as in a work like ‘Light in the Darkness,’ in which both shades are in the painting, but clearly the light seems to drown out the black shadows covering two corners that look as if they’re about to be destroyed by the power of the luminous light.

Yet there are several works in his show which lament damages done to the environment, which is also timely since ethereal assemblage opened just before AF began drawing public attention to the international Climate Change Conference set to take place in Paris at the end of this month.