21 Feb Spirits in Flight – The Art of Peter Elungat

‘Every artwork is a story about the artist’, Elungat tells me. ‘In every artwork the artist puts himself naked on a podium for viewers to inspect’.

This may not be true for all artists, but it is certainly true for Elungat.

We’re looking at an early artwork of his. In the painting, a bird soars towards a young lady holding onto a rock.

‘Let me tell you about birds’, Elungat says.

The bird in the artwork is me’, he pauses. ‘Searching for love, maybe … trying to find my true home. In some paintings I am the bird. Maybe in others, the bird is looking for me.’

There is a sense freedom about Elungat’s paintings. The subjects, usually women, seem to float in the canvas. There is a sense of yearning, anticipation… These artworks are beautiful, meandering tapestries about his life, his loves, his evolution.

He started painting as a child. He was one of twelve children. All the children, he recalls had some creative interest or the other. Everyone did something with their hands. His oldest brother liked to draw, and Elungat followed in his footsteps.

He drew with his brother’s discarded paper and drawing tools. He drew all the time. By high school he had decided he wanted to be a painter and dropped out of school to become an artist. An Uncle introduced him to the artists at the National Museum in Nairobi. The artists operated from an artist’s studio provided by the National Museum. Elungat joined the artist studio and his life as an artist began. Michael, one of the resident artists, took a liking to him and immediately took the young Elungat under his wings.

He had no money. The museum provided breakfast – cup of tea and three slices of bread. He was thankful for the breakfast. It filled his stomach while he was at the studio since he did not have any money to pay for more food. His clothes were threadbare. His shoes were all worn. But he was elated. He was finally working as an artist.

The administrative staff of the museum would often stop by the artist studio to chat, fascinated by these artists who did not seem to ever have any money but were always in such high spirits.

Zainab was one of the young museum staff who would visit. She took a liking to Elungat. She became his muse, his guide, his dear friend. They would eat together, spend time together. He was a little self-conscious at the beginning of the friendship. What could he offer this beautiful woman, He had nothing, She was surrounded by men who had more to offer her yet she chose to spend her time with him, to share her time, to share lunch.

She was the bird who had soared to him, to take him on her wings, to raise him to the skies.

Elungat’s paintings have been predominantly about women. The women in his lives. The women in his dreams. The women he worships.

His women are not typically black African in the way many African artists have come to characterize black African women. They are amorphous, vaguely African. One might have to know the artists and the context to clearly situate them as African. There is a hint of the art of the European renaissance era painters in his figures. His subjects seem contemporary yet of a different era.

He has no desire to accentuate the Africanness of the women he paints. They are who they are, and he sees no need to define them.

This lack of definition may well be a cultural expression of some sort. He could choose to revel in their Africanness or he could insist that their Africanness does not define their qualities. His women will not be caged as one thing or the other. They will be expressed as human beings free to soar in any direction.

For a period, he painted Angelina – lithe, beautiful, elegant. She was an amalgam of several women. She was young, wise and he worshipped her.

He began to paint Elizabeth. He was in love with her. His paintings of Elizabeth reflected his deep affection for her. It was also aa way to express his own evolution. They got married, had children. She evolved from the lithesome young women he met to a rounder woman. His paintings explored and expressed this evolution. This was her physical evolution. It was also his evolution expressed in his paintings of her.

He would constantly paint her with open hands. ‘Her hands always had to be open… not clenched’, he says. ‘The open arms expressed her openness. Her ability to give and receive grace.

He has always been fascinated by the idea of grace. His life he says has been defined by grace from friends and strangers. His early days at the artist’s studio at the museum was made easy by the grace of others. His first studio at Kobo Trust was for him, an example of grace. The owner of Kobo Safari was organising a charity art event and a mutual friend had asked him to call Elungat . He did and Elungat agreed to contribute an artwork for the event. They talked some more and met at the Kobo Safari office. Elungat fell in love with an open office that was part of the Safari office and thought it would make a great studio. He was given the space for free to use for as long as he wanted.

He painted from the studio for the next seven years and even after he left the studio became home to other artists and has become an artistic hub.

‘People bring goodness to your life’, he says. ‘They’re like birds. They come and they go. They come unhindered and they leave unhindered’.

To understand Elungat’s women, one would have to ignore all the regular constructs about culture and race. One would have to ignore all the barriers and see people as simply human – with dreams, hopes, aspirations …One would have to ignore the reality of our world. Or rather, soar above it.

His subjects have no tribe, no race, no nationality. They are universal. Yet African. African, unconstrained by whatever cages the world invents. Human. Truly human.

His women are timeless, unconstrained by geography. Their only mandate – to represent the best in each of us.

He presents these wonderful women to us. And presents himself, naked, with all his dreams and hopes and loves and struggles laid bare.