Art
'Tension' by Evans Mbugua

This Kenyan Artist Creates Stirring "Cosmic Pop Art" Inspired By Contemporary Dance

We speak to Evans Mbugua's about the inspiration behind his striking collections "Identities," and 'Dialogue."

For his first solo show in the UK, Evans Mbugua has created what he's described as “the first visual contemporary dance exhibition," as he carefully puts it.

To achieve the high ambition, the Kenyan-born artist closely observed a pair of male and female dancers for 18 months, in different studios and venues around Paris, France, where he's based.


Mbugua, 38, currently has two exhibitions—“Dialogue" at Gallery of African Art in London and “Identities" at Out of Africa Gallery in the Spanish Pyrenees—both of which opened in December 2017.

'Rise' by Evans Mbugua

2018 is proving to be an equally busy year for the graduate of print design, with a show planned for February at Cape Town Art Fair in South Africa and another in April at Art Paris Fair, where he will be represented by ArtCo Gallery from Germany.

The focus of “Identities" is on individuality while “Dialogue" is the singular story of a pair of dancers in commune. Both set of works are rendered in the most striking fashion using print, photo paper and acrylic glass, commonly used as a durable alternative to glass.

Glass does not typically inspire warmth or the fluidity of dance, even the most stodgy type. Did he not worry that the perceived lack would be an obstacle? “I'm painting humanity. I want to show the beautiful side of humanity," he says. “That's what my art is about. At the same time I agree with you to that glass normally should be cold."

He explains further: “I'm coming from the perspective of stained glass. The transparency and light you'll find on old buildings and churches creates a very interesting atmosphere in architecture. So glass for me is not cold, it's actually colour, it's actually atmosphere."

'Legato' by Evans Mbugua

Mbugua has given to glass the big image overhaul that it would need in my case to inspire warmth, but will not share the finer details of how he has achieved this, being trade secrets.

The works in “Dialogue" take up both floors at GAFRA where 12 life size paintings occupy the ground floor. Downstairs, an entire wall is covered with paper print before which visitors were encouraged to take photos while wearing sunglasses specially designed by the artist. On another wall is a screen showing a short video of one of the dancers, Wanjiru Kamuyu, doing elegant hand and feet work, as though warming up at practice but if over interrupted, would seem like poetic inspirations for the works on display.

On the wall opposite this screen are two sets of 10, small size works (15.5 by 15.5cm) which he's titled “Mouthpieces," and are just that—images of the mouth with the lips highlighted—and are made from, or perhaps cut from, other works combining perspex and photo paper, and imbued with new meaning. “In essence, it is a dialogue between my work and between my subjects," he tells me via Whatsapp messages after his return to Paris.

From the 'Dialogue' series by Evans Mbugua.

The most imposing work on the ground floor is a two-suite piece made from a single image of the male dancer, Smaïl Kanouté, in elegant poise. Both halves—“Beat" and “Rhythm"—could be sold separately are meant to be inspired by the fracture nature of his origins and life today because “part of me is still in Kenya, part of me is still in Paris, part of me today is in London, part of me was New York when I was there the other day, and I love Spain. I think it's a metaphor for just how we are. We could be everywhere."

This one is a hard sell considering the multiplicity he has described outnumbers the simple binary of “Beat" and “Rhythm." But this could be excused as it was well into the evening and after being barraged by questions from visitors about himself and his technique.

'Flow' by Evans Mbugua

Visitors perceptions of Mbugua's distinct works in past exhibitions continue to amuse the artist. It has been described as “Cosmic Pop Art," a coinage which pleases the artist while other assume they are the works of an American pop artist which doesn't bother him. But “when they see me they say you're making African prints but I'm not making African prints. In France it's 'you're doing the wax.' I am not doing the wax," he tells me, laughing at the lazy interpretations and perhaps his own frustration with them, before adding, “I'm sorry I'm creating a universal language using pictograms. It's a sign that everyone uses, just look a bit more."

From the 'Dialogue' series by Evans Mbugua

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***

"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


***

This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

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