Book Review: Visual Voices, the Work of over 50 contemporary Artists in Kenya

Michael Onsando
29 August ,2017

If a painting is worth a thousand words then it would take a novel about the length of Atlas Shrugged to even begin to write a review of Visual Voices. Put together by Footprints press the collection covers over 400 pieces of work from over 57 artists in a variety of contemporary method. I don’t know if there has been, but I’m yet to come across as deliberate and detailed a collection of Kenyan artists.

I do not consider myself Ayn Rand – and I doubt you’re here to read a 1000 page novel. I am, however going to attempt to say a few things about some of the work in this book and the space it occupies.

We are often unable to talk about the murk behind forming identity. This book tries to put together and present a fairly representative sample of what holding these identities in one light looks like. The book itself is murky by which I mean there are few ways to bring the book together in a neat little bow – and as it should be. In fact, it is this mess that makes the book such an important collection. Because the diverse styles are presented as a singular collection under the same light we begin to think about what the overlapping areas could be. How do we Kenya better?

Some of the work looks familiar to me. Reminiscent of the art of some of the books I read in primary school – most of them swahili (not most of the books I’ve read, most of the books with the styles I came across). Some of the work reminds me of the work that I’ve seen on sale in the markets. Some of the work was completely unfamiliar, forcing me to look at it from several odd angles (often upside down) –  a luxury that would not be accommodated to me had I seen them  in the gallery.

Maybe the best thing to do is to look at a few of the pieces.

Florence Wangui, In My World

Perhaps the best place to start is Florence Wangui’s birds. There’s something about a series of charcoal paintings about cocks (male hens) that sounds dull. This series seems to use the image of the cock to show spirit. Which makes sense when you think of how animated and full of life chickens can be. But it’s not even that, maybe it is how alone the chicken are in all the images, removed from context their fierce determination becomes starker.


But if isolation is a thing that is happening then Tabitha Wa Thuku takes it to a whole other level with Safe Hand and mother’s love. The image itself barely kisses the surface of the painting, causing a double or even triple take to capture the fragments the artist provides and the context and your imagination to put the image together.

Boniface Maina, Confines II

Boniface Maina’s broken men (as I have knighted them) particularly caught my eye. His confines series shows oddly formed men in a state of semi wakefulness. There’s something to be said about these men themselves. Their confines never look too restraining, rather, they look like they are drooping. The men though, the men seem out of energy, as if unable to shrug even this off. The men in the images are all look down, defeated. The only question is will they give up?  Or will they carry on, slowly unravelling the things that weigh them down?


Joseph Bertiers, Untitled

Joseph Bertier’s public spaces each seem to tell a story about how we occupy shared spaces – who gets to occupy these spaces and how much of this space do they get. With more emphasis on the people rather than the setting most of the faces in his work are turned to face the viewer. Their expressions are made known to us creating a kind of landscape of people’s reactions. This changes the scene to a form of map of how emotions gather in public spaces – who’s smiling, who isn’t? Where are these people in relation to each other?

It’s definitely a coffee table book. One of those books you buy knowing it will be on your table for a while – or one of those books you should make sure to look at if you find on someone else’s coffee table.

Visual Voices available in bookshops countrywide

Spread the love
%d bloggers like this: