On How Perception Becomes Truth
Rather than spell out his message and expound on the aesthetics of his artwork, Lemek Sompoika prefers to share the deep-seated psychological narrative behind his creative process. Luring his audience in to the sphere of consciousness and perception, he investigates reality through abstraction. Obscuring things in order to see them clearly, he unravels this seeming paradox by first explaining how our everyday definition of truth is limited.
“Truth is what we have been told truth is,” says Sompoika. “It is what we inherited from our parents and from society.” For many people, truth merely refers to the ideas they adopt from elders or community. Others see it as the tangible or observable world. Add to that the fact that truth and reality are used interchangeably because reality is where truth is confirmed. Of everyday life, or what is referred to as present reality, Sompoika believes that everyone processes events differently; that perception shapes “truth”; that an individual’s attitude toward an experience or ideas dictates their reality.
“What people think is fun, is it really, or just an association we have made?” Such is the consistency of Sompoika’s contemplations. Comparing temporal truths with grander truths, he suggests that the eternal or universal truths surpass cognitive reality and are too immense for the mind to wrap itself around. He steers others in to the world of the conjectural, the immaterial and the absolute, saying that, “Truth is abstract, not something definite. It has no limit, boundary, shape or size. You have to be curious enough to see the other side, to open your mind.”
At Abstract Patterns, Lemek Sompoika’s solo exhibition at Red Hill Art Gallery, Nairobi (2021), his works on paper depicted human figures transitioning in to splatters of color-matter and abstract form. Through this shape-shifting or deconstruction of self, Sompoika abstracts the figure to investigate what it means to be human. The viewer is compelled to contemplate what, other than our physical constitution, makes us “real”. As the human figures blur, the unknowingness sparks the imagination, urging his audience to see things differently, to question reality, to turn ideas on their head.
Artists tend to have the same intrinsic awareness of consciousness that Sompoika exhibits. Many live comfortably without paradigm or propaganda. Ceaselessly flirting with concepts, there is the feeling that nothing matters except matter. “There is the solar system where every star will die, where a giant red sun will swallow the earth, where the galaxy will die,” says Sompoika of vaster reality. But although loftier truths resonate with him, he still believes in a platform or launchpad from which to be grounded. “You can’t exist in space or darkness alone,” he says of the extensive deconstruction of reality that many artists are prone to. “You need something to step on, to serve as a base to understand the world from. For me, my Maasai indigenous culture is that starting point.”
Settled in Southern Kenya, the Maasai are a semi-nomadic ethnic group whose way of life is centered on cattle. Their social values are passed down through storytelling. With a rich culture of oral literature, legends and song form strong connections amongst its people. Having spent his early childhood in the Maasai community of Kajiado County, Sompoika’s pastoral upbringing tuned him in to nature. His understanding of truth also began far away from the city. Nairobi, on the other hands, presents a different filter. Of his adulthood in the booming metropolis he says, “I’ve seen the change that we have become. We are synthetic; plastic. I think about what it means to be civilized. City people seem less civilized, but those who live in harmony with nature, they are the civilized ones.”
Nostalgic for the past, and a better connection with nature and to each other, this pining is reflected in the transition within Sompoika's artwork over the years. While his older, more colorful paintings speak to a vibrant, collective society, his newer works (pastel, graphite and charcoal on paper), render a divided, individualistic world, inundated with dogma and bias, and stripped of colour and community. While Sompoika’s “Soko” series from 2013 flaunts outdoor markets and kinship camraderie, by 2016, in his “Duru za Kuaminika” series, this togetherness is lost.
By 2016, Sompoika's imagery consists of disconnected figures in official or religious attire overlaid on sections of Kenyan newspaper that highlight corruption and violence. There is an air of detachment about the people. They barely interact. And by 2018, in his “In Between” series, Sompoika’s solitary figures are gaunt and frail. He excludes their heads from the imagery suggesting that they are no longer in touch with themselves or the truth. Have they been brainwashed by the local newspapers that Sompoika very openly loathes for their biases and misinformation?
“I started to realize how the future of our society is based on the stories we tell,” says Sompoika comparing Maasai folktales to newspaper articles. Exploring how identity and morality are influenced by story, he believes something is askew within capitalist society. “People here think they know but don’t.” According to Sompoika, the pursuit of money and power have impaired the collective conscience and he fears the dehumanization of economy. Observing the new mall culture in Kenya, he worries for those who will never know the pleasure of engaging directly with farmers selling their vegetables at market. Those warm interactions and sacred wisdoms may one day be lost.
Looking to the Maasai for insight, Sompoika dissects Maa language. “There is no word for zero, for nothing. You can see how this might affect perception,” he explains, “And rather than creating a different word for an object, they will describe how the object relates to other things. You suggest things without saying what they are, like with abstract art. It is not a door but the mouth of a house. The imagination is still open to possibility.”
This kind of probing is typical of Sompoika. Playing with perspective and truth, he is more a cordial philosopher than another ruffian hero. In his series Holy Books of Peace (2017), he eloquently encroaches the complicated relationship between religion, politics and war. He is able to confront the culture of fear while peaceably reconnecting with nature and to his Maasai convictions of his childhood. “I’m trying to find a way back or rediscover our place within nature as human beings.” And such is a courageous endeavor that many speak about and few will genuinely pursue.
As Sompoika's human figures burst in to particulate matter, he reminds us that humans are not the apex of existence; that we are made of the same matter as the atmosphere; that our essence is yoked with the absolute. His use of abstraction is an effective tool, with the potential, not just to reshape an image, but to reconfigure the mind. It is in this vein of conceptual ruin and reconstruction by venturesome artists that new ideas and images evolve.
By Zihan Kassam
Note: Lemek Sompoika’s artwork is exhibited in Kenya and internationally, from the Ostrale in Germany, to the Mediations Biennale Poznan in Poland to the AKAA in Paris. In Kenya, he has shown at the Alliance Francaise, Red Hill Art Gallery, Kuona Trust Arts Centre, Circle Art Gallery and Gravitart. His has also shown at the Civic Parker in Australia and Absa Galleries in South Africa.