Beatrice Wanjiku at One Off Gallery challenges us to re-examine concepts of BEAUTY & UGLINESS

By margaretta wa gacheru (was to be published April 11, 2014, but then Business Daily ran out of space)
Beatrice Wanjiku is one of Kenya’s most exciting, original, and mind-bending conceptual artists. She’s also a painter who’s had solo exhibitions practically every year since she left full time employment at the on-line African art gallery,
It’s only this past year that we didn’t see much of Wanjiku, not because she was idle. On the contrary, she was busy developing her art even as she attended art residencies on both the east and west coasts of the USA, based first in Vermont, then in San Francisco.
Beatrice’s collage paintings often include images of an x-ray. At One Off Gallery, she presents her interpretation of the MRI, which is a kind of Brain scan, symbolic of her desire to understand the thinking of madmen like those who casually killed scores of people at the Westgate Mall
So her current one-woman show which just opened at the One Off Gallery is a kind ‘welcome home’ for her. And just as the title of her exhibition (Beauty and Ugliness) reflects a deliberate dualism, it also represents a dialectic of opposites interacting to produce a whole new and unexpected series of paintings.
In Bea’s case, her art bespeaks both continuity and change. On the one hand, the paintings in this show include several signature features that make her style distinctive and unique. Most obvious are her dark, haunting, shadowy and semi-abstract figures set against an unadorned backdrop, all the better to enhance the dramatic effect of her slightly disturbing almost-human forms.
They are not present in all her paintings, but her series, Ashes of the Ages I, II and III compels one to wonder who these characters are? Are they ghosts, spirits or more like ancestral entities who echo another one of her themes developed in a previous exhibition, that of immortality?

What’s changed in their configuration this time round is that the forms seem more genial and less ghostly now. They also appear in clusters, as if they’re somehow related rather than looking lonely or forlorn.
But then again, Beatrice isn’t done creating images that are ambiguous, if not disturbing. For even though these figures are bound together, there is invariably one per painting that’s dismembered. They’ve either got truncated torsos or heads removed from their neck and transferred to their tummy! But in this transfer of body parts, there’s a kind of amusing irreverence towards the human form that gives her show added (albeit quirky) appeal.
Another series in this show that does a similar sort of surreal switch of body parts is her set of paper collages which she calls ‘Arrested Development I, II, and III’. I nickname them ‘Smiling Skulls’ since she’s lifted illustrated teeth, skulls and even wombs from her father’s old anatomy book and arranged them to make a powerful statement (again ambiguous). It’s apparently about human beings who don’t grow mentally beyond infantile awareness. They live and die oblivious to life’s infinite possibilities.
Beatrice has a lot to say about the human condition in this show. The artist explained at the opening that she was in California when she heard about the Westgate travesty. It moved her deeply, which is how her blood red portrait of an ‘Untitled’ eye-less being got into her show.
“If eyes are ‘windows into one’s soul’, then I feel whoever orchestrated Westgate was soul-less,” she said.
Eyes are another element of continuity that seemed to make statements in a number of her previous works. It’s interesting to realise that some of her paintings that I previously found unsettling were ones in which eyes were absent as she dared to portray man’s inhumanity in her art.
One of her most intriguing series in this show is another expression of continuity as she revives the concept of the x-ray but she takes it to another level. “If you look again, you’ll see x-rays in many of my paintings,” said the artist, suggesting that she’s more interested in exploring internal, even psychological and philosophical issues in her art.
In her current show, it’s a special sort of x-ray, the MRI that inspired her to create an iconic set of transparent brains. Again probing the human condition, she seems to be seeking answers to the question of how men (and women) can be so cruel and careless with human life as to destroy it casually as they did at Westgate? Ironically, she seems to be asking if the answer could be found by scanning the human mind, (assuming brain waves can register human thought).
Not all of Beatrice’s paintings are dark by any means. In fact, it’s the duality, the blend of both beauty and bestiality that makes this exhibition one of her finest.

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