Simple Laws That Model Human Civilization

Michael Musyoka’s exhibition reveals the guilt and shame of being judged and at the same time the repercussions of breaking the law. The ten large paintings talk about the inhibitory nature of law- a law which impedes necessity while proclaiming individual freedomsthe laws which define human civilization.

May Sunday 12, and we are rising on Limuru road like a cloud headed to the cul de sac above the hill called Red Hill Art Gallery. Hidden within the trees, I point out to my colleague, ‘there above those hills is where we are headed. I had been to the gallery in 2016 at least two years later, therefore, I could not trust my memory. I sought Google Map, “Head Northwest for two kilometres and then take the round-about to the right.” What on earth was I hearing? I discarded the phone and brushed my rusty memory- and voila! the memory delivered. ‘The internet navigator would have thrown me onto Redhill Road near Village Market’. I proclaimed to my colleague who was making his first trip to the gallery.

Image by Eric Gitonga

Having arrived safely at our destination, we were ushered in by one lovely but a bit scary dog, despite my fear for dogs, I embraced this lovely bitch and she guided us into the arms of  Erica Musch- Rossler the co-owner of the gallery who showed us to the gallery claiming that the other dogs would be less friendly. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I was with a familiar face, well to both me and the dog. We headed into the gallery, breathing in the cold fresh air of Limuru while our eyes feasted on the lush green lawn and the towering trees. Hellmuth Rossler was entertaining another group, who I would like to believe were other guests at the courtyard of the gallery.

Inside the L-shaped gallery, we were greeted with “Time and other Constructs” ten large paintings hanging on the wall. On the outset, it is a beautiful arrangement- a kind of sacred cave with the gods of the ancients plastered on those canvases. Prayerfully and innocently they bow to show their respects. Birds flying and overstuffed Michelin boys running completes the cursory glance.

The large paintings are the masterpieces by Michael Musyoka a Nairobi based artist. Michael is the 2015 first Runner’s up of Manjano Art Competition in Nairobi. A founding member of Brush Tu artists’ Collective, Michael’s styles range from cubism and surrealism while revealing techniques such us collage, painting and illustration. An upcoming artist, Michael has majorly exhibited in Kenya at Circle Art Agency, Attic Artspace, Artspace and the Little Art Gallery. Internationally, he participated in group exhibitions in Dubai, UAE (2018) and Denmark (2016).

Carefully sampling the pieces in this exhibition, one cannot easily notice that they are in three categories; The Time series, Listening to the wrong Voices and Punitive Measures. Their arrangement is as disorganized as the art is ambiguous.

The time series can further be divided into the time servant and time. In this, the artist explores the limitation of time, how there is never enough time and how time in itself is a force against us. “Time is law, and this law limits what we can do and what we cannot do,” Michael tells me in a phone conversation. “Everything is time-bound,” he adds. Unwittingly, our conversation was delayed for almost an hour since Michael had been engaged in another ‘time-bound’ assignment. The time series also looks at the passage of time, and how things change. According to Michael, Time I and II are self-portraits- “memory for when I was fat and how I viewed myself,” he said amid laughter. The portraiture is Michelin boys struggling with their own weight and to the onlooker, they are healthy boys playing. However, according to Michael, they are burdened by self-doubt and self-judgment on how he appeared before others. The issue of weight, weighed heavily upon him until he shaved off the extra 20Kgs!

In Time servant I and II, the subjects are on their knees heads bowed in shame and shoulder hunched, while hands crossed at the back. The silence in the paintings is oppressive and the guilt of their suffering gnaws on the viewer’s conscience. Looking at the two paintings one realizes how hard it is to administer justice and why Kenya’s political elites enjoy such massive support regardless of their murky dealings. However, it is beautiful to imagine how our corrupt leaders would look like in jail. Will they hide their faces from us and whimsically pose like those falsely accused or would they blatantly deny and hide in their tribe?

The primal urge for the accused political elite in this East African country is to employ hounds from the tribe to sing the national anthem of “our tribe is being targeted.” Any wonder that the only remorse we can see is that portraits hanging on the wall.

Image by Eric Gitonga

In the American TV series Lucifer, the first episode begins with Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis) speeding on the streets of Los Angeles while listening to loud music. When Lucifer is stopped by a police officer, he tries to bribe his way out and using his mind tricks, gets away. Fascinating enough, Lucifer gets the officer to confess that he too, breaks the law he has sworn to protect! In Listening to the Wrong Voices, Michael addresses the issue of following common laws. Using birds in red, yellow and white hues, spread over the canvas cascading their shadows on the ground. The Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art graduate looks at our relationship with common laws. Within the paintings are inscriptions, ‘Usikojoe Hapa” and “50KPH”- two commonly ignored laws on many fronts, well as the story of Kenyan toads goes. ‘Usikojoe Hapa’ loosely translated to mean ‘do not urinate here’ is a common line I would describe it as that grafitti ‘law’ on nearly every wall in downtown Nairobi cautioning passersby against reckless emptying of bladder especially in highly populated areas like Nairobi City. However, “Urinating is a necessity that need not controlling,” the artist ponders. The artist does not really support peeing in every outpost but looks on a larger scale the aspect of freedom which comes with what should be done and what ought not to be done. Our every aspect of life is controlled that it is easier to be on the wrong side of the law with a slight touch of the pedal than being on the right side of the law.

We strive more to remain free in a world where it is easier to be in gallows than on the street. In fact, the phrase ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ should be paraphrased to ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ According to the artist, some laws are inhibiting although they are meant to make lives better. Such laws govern “our life and morality,” he said.

The final group, Punitive Measures, like Time Servant, show the repercussions of breaking the law- being shamed in the public. Of late, there have been some high profile arrests in Kenya targeted at those perceived to be misusing state resources. The largest ever arrest and arraigning in court targeted the country’s Revenue authorities, and oh boy, did they not try as much to hide from the cameras? In my random conversation reflecting on how they covered their faces while in court as the reporters’ cameras lit the rooms with flashes, my friend cheekily claimed that one day the Kenyan police will bring logs covered in hoodies to court… but that is a story for another day. With Punitive Measures, the paintings show the shame of the subjects, as if paraded on their knees, they seem to be reaping what they sow. However, like the revenue officials, these are just small fish- but what about the big fish?

The current exhibition at Red Hill is a continuation of the artist’s 2018 exhibition ‘Yearning.’ In both these exhibitions, the artist who is in his early thirties tries to look at our relationship with humanity and savagery- how rules guide us into being civilized and how anarchy could destroy our very existence as civilized individuals. The exhibition opened on March 31 and runs to May 19 2019.  

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