Katy Fentress

Observing, Understanding, Exploring, Eating, Drinking

The Negative, The Positive and The Pipes That Bind It

Pipes are visible and invisible webs that interconnect humanity. From the gas and oil pipes that crisscross the globe, to the pipes that supply water to the comfort of our homes, they are a constant running through our lives.

“Pipes that Bind, Faces in Places” is an exhibition by Kenyan artist Paul Onditi, that ran at the Goethe institute in September 2014. The exhibition was inaugurated in the presence of a mixed crowd of Nairobi art enthusiasts, top-notch artists and curious spectators who presumably had rolled up because they were intrigued by the cryptic title. After being given time to take in the show, the audience was treated to a fascinating Q&A between the artist and exhibition curator Franziska Lukas.

In this multidimensional exhibition that defies any of the conventional ideas about what African art “should” be, Onditi has set out to bring to a logical conclusion a thought process that began shortly before the crisis between Russia and Ukraine began to unfold. The reliance on the pipes that sustain our lives is juxtaposed by the personalities and power games that pull the strings of the intricate web.

If you are expecting to find any pipes in this exhibition, prepare to be disappointed. The pipes that bind us are, as mentioned above invisible, although the faces in places are present, recognisable and at times quite sinister.

Webs of meaning and shared experiences are what bind humanity together. But there are other, more physical “pipes” that are common throughout all humans, no matter what their race, creed or colour. One such pipe is of course the human skeleton, which Onditi represents on a paper plate framed by the white red and blue stripes of a classic envelope.

One of the walls of the exhibition features four portraits of respectively Obama, Martin Luther King Jr, Putin and Mandela. The portraits are in negative form highlighting the “negative side to our personalities that we prefer to maintain hidden” but at the flick of a switch the previously dark frames become light boxes, with the faces inside suddenly reversed to become the positive side of themselves that they would want or have wanted projected to the world.

Throughout the series, Onditi has developed on his previous body of work, which focuses on the use of paper plates and highly-contrasted silhouettes and faces. He diverges from his norm in one case which is the red carpet that runs across the room. Except of course the red carpet is not a red carpet but a roll of chicken wire bathed in red paper mache’ representing the path of blood that politicians must create in their wake, in order to ascend to and hold their position of power.

“Pipes that Bind, Faces in Places” is both a fascinating and intriguing exhibition. Few Kenyan artists of Onditi’s generation have quite so successfully managed to break the mould and come up with a genre which is quite so different, original and above all pleasing to look at. His art looks comfortable both on the walls of an exhibition, in a house or more intimate setting.

This article was originally published on upnairobi.com in September 2014

Categories: Art, Opinion, Review

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