Reality as Reverie
Boniface Maina's Spellworks of Art
A soft wind plays with the translucent curtain to his room. He stands outside, staring beyond the stars, in to space. Frail bodied, with long cables of hair afloat, he is made of ether, emotions and a light layer of epithelium. Is he an apparition; a figment of our imagination, or is he equally burdened by the flesh and the human condition?
A painting with the air of a lucid dream, An Evening away from the City (2019) by Boniface Maina casts a heady spell on its oglers. From his Waiting, Watching and Wishing series at Circle Art Gallery in 2020, it explores the ripple effects of the pandemic. But rather than painting figures in protective masks, to add to the long register of similar artwork from 2020, Boniface Maina uses his well-known, introvert figure, to explore the shockwaves of Covid-19, and as expected, he interprets reality in an entrancing and unusual way.
Nairobi’s art buffs are familiar with Boniface’s mysterious, solitary character and they look forward to his enigmatic landscapes, each of them different, and all of them otherworldly. From the abandoned inn to his scrublands with mythical trees, they boast of beautiful light. Boniface’s tall stranger, made of wiry light, greets the viewer, welcoming them to a peculiar realm where clarity meets chaos, and deliberation meets delirium. A kind of knowingness and meaninglessness exist in tandem in his distinctive paintings where the human is represented as fretful and vulnerable but also wise and spirited. As such, Boniface takes his viewers on a mind trip, compelling them to reflect on their significance, if any, on this hard-blackened planet.
“Based on our new reality since Covid (19), I’ve had to rethink life,” says Boniface. “Up until recently, it was dictated by certain forces, but now we have to look at what it really entails.” As he contemplates his own mortality, worries for his family, and realizes just how connected people are, Boniface converts his observations in to compelling imagery.
In Kenya, where the majority of employment exists in the informal sector, and a large percentage of the population live hand-to-mouth, there have been visible transitions since the pandemic took hold. Many who have lost their jobs have also had to vacate their homes. “In Buruburu, three houses near mine are empty,” says Boniface, “The economic meltdown is real,” and whereas the elite have had to cut down on travel and luxury items, a larger faction struggles to make ends meet and to secure their basic needs.
Boniface’s drawing Economy Graph, 2020 depicts a forlorn figure in an empty room staring at the floor. He is burdened by depression, debt and bankruptcy. His mask has been discarded. This particular artwork is from the second set of imagery in Boniface’s Waiting, Watching and Wishing series. Merging two concepts, the first set features his lonesome, pensive character. These artworks tend to be (but are not limited to) larger acrylic paintings with detailed backgrounds usually mystical locales.
The second set is interspersed amongst the first, and consists primarily of works on paper in which Boniface uses pencil and acrylic paint to draw either one, two or three short figures in each piece, their hands knotted in their meagre robes. They appear powerless; at the mercy of the world. “The different works respond to each other like question and answer,” Boniface explains, “The first set explores humans in nature and then the smaller figures show my observations of all the interruptions and changes resulting from Covid (19).”
But aside from the economic hardships exacerbated by the coronavirus, Boniface portrays melancholy exchanges between family members communicating from behind computer screens or windows, perplexed scientists rigorously studying the complex virus, anxious patients awaiting test results, and lonely souls trapped at home. Such images are effectively juxtaposed with Boniface’s fantastical sceneries, where there is an implied freedom from the normal order of things and where the deterioration of norms has afforded a new harmony.
In his painting Warmth and Whisky on the Side, 2019, only dark coils of hair peek from the hind-view of an armchair. Someone is relishing a tranquil drink alone. There is a sense of solitary enjoyment; to hell with money, politics and social networking. He paints a quiet reprieve away from the urban disorder.
It is in this way that Boniface Maina’s artwork speaks to both the chaos and calm at once. On the one hand his short figures are distraught with their new, difficult reality. On the other, his mindful sage has found peace away from the social decay. As such, the viewer shuttles between two experiences, feeling perturbed and unmoved in the same vein.
Whether large paintings like Sundown or Conversation About a Place or smaller ones like Morning (all painted in 2020), Boniface’s sunrises and sunsets are glorious. He paints the skies that dreams are made of. Everything his beautiful light touches, from ground-soil to a stone wall, is stroked by a magic radiance, a luminosity that is tranquil and profound. And he creates these vivid hallucinations using just few secrets. He begins by painting his canvas a dark colour, creating an opaque base. He then uses a fan brush over the first visible layer to create the spray or misty effect of his backgrounds. When painting old walls, for their cracks and shadows, he dabs serviettes over the wet paint.
To give balance to his compositions, Boniface’s figures are placed last and even the direction in which their hair flows, for example, is determined by the need for equilibrium. Boniface enjoys the negative space in his paintings, “for the imagination to do what it does”. Of his landscapes he says, “The spaces are real and not real. The buildings are indoor and outdoor at the same time, to play with the mind. The architecture is influenced by Lamu rooftops.”
Boniface participated in the Lamu Painters Festival in 2017. In the past, contributing artists focused on the jaunty seascapes of the East African Coast where the event takes place. Boniface however, with a few other Kenyan contemporary artists, delved deeper in to the spirit of Shela Village. Boniface took longer than the others to get started, but ultimately, he produced evocative depictions of mournful donkeys, lumbered stone-carriers, and fatigued dhows tired from time. Exhibiting alongside other acclaimed international artists at the Lamu Fort, he successfully captured the underbelly of the island, and his artwork was acknowledged for its novelty and his atypical filter and not the habitual paradisiacal lens.
The landscapes in Boniface paintings might not be paradise but they are abnormally reposeful. His kind skies are sanguine shelters for his amiable apparition. Conversely, his works on paper depict uneasy spaces that call attention to the negative social and financial repercussions of Covid 19. Both categories of artwork, with their divergent messages, are equally powerful. As such, Boniface effectively portrays the human condition through a myriad of experiences, reactions and emotions felt by the figures of his various series. On the one hand, they are nervous and delirious, on the other, contemplative and composed.
And so, who then is the strange spectre in Boniface Maina’s surreal paintings? Is he a a ghost or is he just like the rest of us, who have reached our threshold, with parts of us waning under the duress? Is he the spirit within us; perhaps our higher selves? There is the feeling that Boniface’s stout characters are just another embodiment of his tall, nude fellow, as are the other faceless silhouettes of his previous series. Each of them reflects real sentiments felt by real people but whereas sometimes our contemplations are elevated and impassioned, other times we are lesser versions of ourselves; consumed by things that don’t matter.
by Zihan Kassam
Born in 1987 in Nanyuki town, Boniface Maina’s work has featured in magazines, art books and news articles locally and internationally. He is a founding partner of Brush Tu Art Studio. His work is found in private and public art collections in Kenya and abroad.
Photographs courtesy of Circle Art Agency