By JONATHAN GOODMAN December 4, 2020
Nairobi-based painter Paul Onditi was born in Kenya in 1980, moving to Germany twenty years later to study at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach am Main. After ten years in Europe, he returned to Nairobi, where he has become internationally known for complex imagery involving cityscapes, scenes suggestive of climate dystopias, and an archetypal alter ego named Smokey, who serves as a witness to the urban confusion in which he--and Onditi--find themselves. Onditi has shown all over the world--in Rome, London, Dakar, and New York (this is his first show with Montague Contemporary). Working on digital polyester inkjet plates, Onditi records a rather grim, complex scenario of natural and psychological decay, with his layered surfaces and overlapping fragments of images. Titled “The Pipes That Bind 2,” the show comprises works done by Onditi during the time of the Covid virus quarantine. The current circumstances surrounding Onditi’s situation may have intensified an innate melancholy in his art; it is hard to say. The general aura of these paintings is that of a troubled natural world, in which individual agency doesn’t seem to affect the decay and pollution we are facing.
One of the more cogent, and more interesting, attributes of Onditi’s work is its internationalism--one has no idea where these paintings were made. This makes sense in the example of Onditi, who spent ten years in Europe before returning to Nairobi. His time in Germany has made him familiar with Western art concerns, to which he has responded with intelligence and verve. This is increasingly true in a general sense for art outside Europe and North America. (An African curator has been quoted as saying there is no African art anymore, only art from Africa.) Increasingly, likely resulting from the content of Western education, African art has become contemporary in an international sense. Onditi’s subtle renderings of mysterious surroundings, contemplated by Smokey, a steady watchman among dire circumstances, start to look like allegories of psychic hardship whose causes Onditi alone is aware of. The works become visual allegories of a time beset by global warming and polluted skies, surely the artist’s experience in the cities of Africa and Europe. But, even so, despite the allusions to climate and urban atmospheres, it is also clear that Onditi has painted an auto-biography, in which the vagaries of the painter’s life are given in dramatic, symbolic fashion. Looking at the work, viewers might well find a melancholy that has weight as a general statement, at least in part because the outlook is so closely tied to the artist himself.
Most of Onditi’s paintings consist of a decaying landscape occupied by Smokey, whose general figure but not his facial lineaments is visible. Yet of course he humanizes the landscape, which tends to be rocky and torn. In the painting From Bags to Rags (all paintings were done this year), Onditi presents us with a field of rocks, in which the figure stands, holding a simply painted bag. Above him we find an apocalyptic sky of grayish hue, with an indistinctly circular white shape--the sun--looming over the entire landscape. It is an end of the world scenario; we cannot imagine what the small bag holds, unless it is a change of clothes to get through yet another day. The atmosphere of the paintings is filled with both melancholy and imminent danger; it doesn’t look like much will go right. What can the viewer think in the face of such symbolic restiveness? Onditi is a painter of late existentialism, given to symbolic treatments of the individual in the face of hopeless surroundings. There is truth to his scenarios--the ecological circumstances we are facing have become even more desperate than we imagined two generations ago. But it is also true that the painting, with its title, suggests poverty and deep isolation. Painting like this, Onditi offers little solace but considerable truth in his consideration of the human predicament.
As an allegory, Onditi’s painting is reiterated in similar circumstances. It is hard to tell whether Smokey is surviving or slowly suffocating from the adverse aura of his surroundings. This is a simple figure in a distorted landscape, in which the outward circumstances seem intended to chasten and serve as a visual reminder of our fallen condition. In most cases, it proves hard to find much optimism--in All Before Me, the figure stands with his back to us, his arms bent as he gazes over an orange patch of ground, a broad. gray swathe of trees, and then, toward the top, an orange patch of sky with a semicircular sun. The figure has his back to us, looking ahead toward the gray woods. The title is neutral--it could be read positively or negatively, although the visual cast of the painting does promote an apocalyptic view. The second version of the painting is quite similar; again, the figure has crooked arms and faces while contemplating an austere landscape of leafless trees. The isolation of the figure creates a somber mood. It might be said that we are living in a time of near apocalypse, when nature itself is giving way to desolate machinations beyond any individual’s capacity to change. The frozen moment of these emblematic paintings precludes Smokey’s ability to manage a transformation of his world, troubled as it is with a disorganized, soul-less postmodernity.
Thus, we are not overemphasizing if we point out the existential nature of the paintings’ scheme. It is an experiential trap with far-reaching natural causes. Yet this comes from a painter living in Nairobi, a major African city. The savannah is about as far away from him as it is from us. Two paintings, Frozen Situation and Mediterranean Dream, look like symbolic landscapes incorporating reminders of civilization. Frozen Situation has a complicated, rocky landscape at the top, with two separate, lit collonades in the middle, surrounded by a gray expanse--one assumes snow or frozen water. Beneath the collonades are two men carrying carcasses on poles in the snow, while the bottom quarter of the painting is taken up with vertical lines, nearly drips, that fall to the lowest end of the composition. The skewed overall pattern of Mediterranean Dream mimics the disjointed design of Frozen Situation; in both, hard-to-read, discrete images jostle each other, forcing our attention and understanding to move from one object to the next in both pictures. In Mediterranean Dream, we see, in the middle of the painting, what looks like a black-and-white rendering of a crowd of people on a red circular island: a good guess would read the group as refugees, not at all sure where they will arrive. Above the crowd are buildings that look like they are slowly sinking into the sea, while in the lower third we find a gray expanse, much like the sea itself, along with forms that suggest submerged architecture--if the vague shapes can be read with accuracy.
These paintings are much more than pastiches of culture; they demonstrate the ambivalence Onditi seems to have in regard to culture, given our propensity for engendering natural damage. In general, the body of work seems pessimistic, at least up to a point--we are not sure why things seem to be breaking down in these paintings. The pessimism appears to be both cultural and natural, the latter caused by human interference. As the artist shows in these paintings, it is only a matter of time before our vulnerability is understood as a touchstone for our ongoing condition; surely this is a way of recognizing our position in the face of the corona virus, which has done so much harm throughout the world. One feels that the troubles we encounter in this body of work are both immediate and historical, in part because of the paintings’ symbolic nature, which lends itself both to a spontaneous and chronicled comprehension of this themes. Onditi is a doomed witness and a visionary prophet at the same time, seeking to portray the shaky merger of hope and despair. His decision to create an atmosphere in which both attitudes are given equal weight means that our humanity is, as usual, in the balance, forsaken and possible at once. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.view all articles from this author