Artist Shabu Mwangi explores social ills

Abstract paintings of individuals and groups highlight socioeconomic inequalities, historical violence and the plight of Kenya’s youth

In Summary
  • His archetypal human figure is bare-chested, bony-shouldered, and bald-headed with a disfigured face.
  • A self-taught artist, Mwangi has exhibited in the UK, US, Germany and Brazil. In 2022, he won the Arnold Bode prize in Germany.
Visual artist Shabu Mwangi
Visual artist Shabu Mwangi

Visual artist Shabu Mwangi has remained immensely productive since he entered the art world in 2003. Most recently, he showcased artwork produced over 18 months in a solo exhibition titled (Un)contained Turbulence: A Rip through the Veil.

The show is underway at Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi.

Art making is both therapy and an avenue for Mwangi, a deeply introspective person, to make social commentary about life and society. He paints primarily oil on canvas but also creates sculptures and installations, using media such as mabati, steel, wood and sisal.

His expressive abstract paintings of individuals or small groups of people highlight social-economic inequalities, historical violence, human behaviour and the plight of Kenya’s youth. Mwangi’s archetypal human figure is bare-chested, bony-shouldered, and bald-headed with a disfigured face.

His work compels the viewer to look slowly and deliberately, acknowledging what one is sensing and experiencing from a work.

We Belong to the Land is a painting that addresses the long-standing and contentious issue of land and land stewardship. A bare-chested man fills up most of the canvas, jealously cradling his possessions in his arms while eyeing attractive, faraway terrain with grazing cattle. “Whoever controls the land, controls you. Control of the land is control of resources,” says Mwangi.

I was drawn to the illustration Empress in a Gown in which two young men are seated on the ground and talking, framed in soft shades of green. One man is fully clothed while the other man has a naked torso and prominently outlined ribs. Despite their obviously different circumstances, the pair seem to have a close bond. “I was reflecting on how many Kenyan graduates get degrees but still do not move ahead in life, they remain poor,” Mwangi said.

Mwangi focuses on can be done today, as captured Jana, Leo, Lesho (Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow). Three figures, or possibly the same person, move through life as their feet are turned in the same direction, a railway track lies below then, and multi-coloured dashes above them, evoking movement. The ‘kesho’ figure is the most unclear of the three. During an open evening with the artist, Mwangi explained, “Sometimes we focus too much on the past, which becomes a cage, the future is unknown but the present is all we have.”

Though many of Mwangi’s characters appear distressed, like the disturbing issues he addresses, there are more hopeful narratives in his collection. The two seated figures in State of Waiting portray the artist and his mother in an intimate moment as she reaches out to hold his hand in a scene of mauve, blush pink, green and deep blue.

Mwangi also reflects on himself in three self-portraits. The strong, upright figure with indistinct facial features in Space Within looks down at his hands an empty green background. Painted on mabati in deep brown, orange and white, the picture captures moments of anxious contemplation about life, his work and accomplishments.

State of Nothingness II is a different style of self-portrait. The head-and-shoulders figure against a red backdrop gazes at the viewer with a calm, questioning look. Unlike Space Within, which exudes tense emotion, State of Nothingness II has an overall feeling of serenity. Mwangi says he likes the colour red, “because for me it is the colour of hope”.

A self-taught artist, Mwangi has exhibited in the UK, US, Germany and Brazil. He was a finalist for the 2023 Access Art X Prize of Nigeria in the Africa/Diaspora category.

In 2013 Mwangi cofounded the Wajukuu Arts Collective in the informal settlement of Mukuru where he has spent much of his life and operates an art studio.

Through Wajukuu, he remains committed to positively affecting the local community, particularly the youth, through arts education. Mwangi and his colleagues at Wajukuu Art Project participated in the Documenta 15 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, in 2022 and won the Arnold Bode prize worth €10,000 (Sh1.43 million today).

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