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Kivuthi Mbuno - Kenya

Kivuthi Mbuno - Kenya - SARENCO FOUNDATION

There are many ways to talk about animals or to make them speak: fables, myths, odes, hunting stories, scientific descriptions, methaphors, proverbs, good or bad memories. Everyone has his intimate bestiary, but ask around you, it is always the same animals mentioned, like in fables. Among thousands and thousands of species living on earth, only a few fill our brain and still stimulate us, totemic and fabulous beasts, full of stories and symbols, far from the animal clones of today.

In Africa, every year, waves of tourists flood, armed with cameras, in parks and reserves, and take shots after shots of herds of buffalo, giraffes, lions, gazzelles, zebras, wildebeests...Memories that will be filed in photo albums later and postacards grabbed from the restlessness of times: the beasts' peacefulness, their ageless mystery. For it is there, in Africa, and particularly in the large plains of South Kenya, that we can still touch the naive imagery of the creation and wildlife and get close to our ancient fears or joys without any risks, find life-sized and alive the cuddly toys of our childhood.

A long time ago, before the organised safari, the first men drew, carved and painted grand files of animals on the walls of caves like past or future hunts, since their survival dependent on the abundance of game and its consent: secret rituals when they needed the strength and cunning of animal or to become aurochs or vultures to communicate with the spirits. Man, then, surrounded by animals needed them and to come to terms with those reserves of meat and deity.

Animals, domesticated, controlled, penned in, soon manipulated, what remains apart from the harmless and ferocious lions, bears and snakes of our chilhood books? And when we mention the last elephants, the last wolves, the future disappearance of a sable antelope or of a swamp bird, is it always because of the same nostalgia, the nostalgia of a time where man and animal shared the same territories and, according to legends, the same language. Blurred regret of a fallen alliance that  we now desperately try to fix on film or to put in the protection programmes.

Kivuti Mbuno does not take photograps, what's the use? For thirty years now, he has been tracking on paper, animals, spaces and colours from a time that never existed except in his dreams, and in our. Secret safari, slow, meticulous, made of layers of pastels, inks and bees wax. A time where monkeys were swinging at the horn of rhinos, where impalas rode buffalos, where men were offering water to elephants, and hanging at the giraffes' necks in order to unhook/take down snakes, or crawling up to the leopard or the lion and following antelopes with their spears and arrows. A time and land where skies caught fire with orange and crimsom, where the soil became purple under the zebra's hoofs. A time gone by?

In these irrational savannahs wonders a strange creature, with a large skull, and a prominent forehead, round shoulders, frail limbs, often witha calabash and stick; he is naked. Fragile despite his weapons, sometimes knocked over by his preys or running away from a carnivore. Humanoid, a man maybe, but his presence seems not assured on earth, among the beasts. A kind of clumsy Adam, whose goot would still be in animal world, a rival of the predators but also a possible prey. He is certainly part of the landscape yet he seems already to be disturbing its balance and its rhythms. His huts and utensils take up space, he stores fruits and wood, wonders around with these and sometimes gets tangled up in them. He inevitably grows heavy with things and time but continues his own way. It is this passage, almost a threshold, blurred and painful, from animal to man that Mbuno tries to depict with the utmost tenderness. There used to be animals and then this creature appeared, and started to dream about himself in another place. We know what happened next....

There is no blood shed with Mbuno, neither screams nor injuries. Hunters track, lie in wait, set traps, crawl to get closer, still silent. Blood seems to be postponed. Freeze frame! Waiting is like a still dance, the animals floating on hazy backgrounds, the antelope, immobile while running, like the pouncing panther. Each seems isolated in its bubble of silence and loneliness, in its own pulsation. Like milestones, only a few terrestrial elements appear: trees, bushes, mountains and backwaters, reframe the scene, while stressing the fantastic myth.

The fact that landscape is treated like simple décor, the absence of perspective and of a chiaroscuro, and sometimes strident bright colours, it all contributes to create what one should call a magic universe. Since it is less about analysing than opening our eyes wide, the story gains over study and dramatisation. In order to assess his vision, the painter proceeds slowly with repeated layers of colour and wax, mixing oil pastels, scrubbing a green with a lemon yellow, giving muscles to his gazzelles and lionesses by outlining them with black and juxtaposing pink, grey, orange and blue in an improbable rainbow.

Of the African menagerie, Mbuno only retains a few species, among the most well known and the most emblematic. Simple and limited vocabulary but effective; the repetition of always the same animals metamorphosing them into signs. Thus the painter can compose each painting like the fragment of a closed universe: a circus ring where each does its own show, like a smaller-scale Ngorongoro creater. Outlined with dark ink, animal and human figures stand out against the background like letters of an imaginary alphabet or cut pictures of a collage. This density gives them their power of appearance. The wax unifies the ensemble bu shooting it. It patinates and in a way glazes the colours giving the picture this aspect of an acid drop sweet, which definitively takes it away from any naturalist temptation. We are somewhere else, perhaps Eden. In a state of nature, before the enclosure of property, and sport hunting, when man could still appoach the mysteries of nature, the instinct and godliness of animals.

There is in Mbuno a refinement of drawing and of colours, one could almost say preciosity, which resembles Persian miniatures, when the prince was hunting the lion against a background o dune and palm trees. It is tradition of the tale: to paint as we would tell a very old story, which may have not taken place, but in which we need to believe.

So, patiently, like an old wise man, Kivuti Mbuno invents a universe in suspension, close and distant a the same time, a kind of secular ceremony. It is no longer about acting in the course of nature by capturing the animal through its representation. It is production; it is more of a comedy pantomime in which man is far from always thiumphing because he is sill the prey of an animal dizze spell. All this works like a small mnemonic machinery, only to remind us that this world is necessary and so is its magic. Scanning the figures and colours, oue eye goes back in time, to an age where cunning and guns did not smother the peril and the innocence. Hunting, then, was coupled with a silent prayer.