The life and times of Richard Onyango

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That day in 2018 outside the Lamu Museum Fort some local painters were teaching children to draw as part of the festivities of the Culture Week. They had never seen a painting by Onyango in their life. After one of them discovered the painting, others were summoned to check it out for themselves, It was agreed among them that this was a very important piece.

Richard Onyango (1960,¬† lives and works in Malindi, Kenya) is a legend in Kenya’s artworld.¬† Binyavanga Wainana, who sadly died this year, was editor of the Kwa-nini? series and this book is himself is a legend to Kenya’s literary world. If only for the cooperation of the two giants, we should try to get a copy of the book for LMYS.

Richard attended the Lamu Maktaba ya Sanaa symposium 2018 somewhat by accident. On the same day the opening was scheduled of his enormous painting, a commision, in Lamu Fort as well. The subject of this painting was: the future of Lamu. Richard painted a very lively and busy scene with matata’s and a great number of eccentric looking oldtimer-cars stuck in traffic jams on future multi-lane roads and new monumental bridjes. The City plan showed juicy buildings reminding one of Miami Art Deco style and probably an impression of the new port in Mpeketoni, planes landing and leaving,. He painted the whole scene from the perspective of the coast. near Mkowe. The old town of Lamu, nowadays a Unesco world heritage site, was depicted in the upper right corner of the picture: a pearl of ancient beauty untouched by this futuristic turmoil.

That day in 2018 outside the Lamu Museum Fort some local painters were teaching children to draw as part of the festivities of the Culture Week. They had never seen a painting by Onyango in their life. After one of them discovered the painting, others were summoned to check it out for themselves, It was agreed among them that this was a very important piece.

The paintings in this book show Swahili rooms and beds, nature and people, but Onyango did not become famous because his subjects are so realisticly painted (which by the way they are). These paintings are mysterious, a little crazy. The story in the book: the artist’s love affair with English Drosie that ended with her premature death is as lovely as it is strange. To some spectators the overweighed Drosie stands for the oppressing white colonizer, but no one can tell for sure.

Onyango is not the kind of painter to gear up his painting with unequivocal meaning. That his viewers experience such a strong reaction and interpretation, is because Onyango’s intuition is spot on. Sometimes it is even too much for the painter himself: Onyango tells that he stopped painting disasters – busses stuck in mud, planes crashing, etc – when he noticed that somehow they seemed to be foretelling future events. He became scared to ever painting a disaster again.

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