Richard Onyango

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Visual Arts (painting)
Africa, Eastern
created on:
May 14, 2003
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Life in the rush-hour

Two African landscapes open out in paintings by the Kenyan Richard Onyango: In one of them, framed by pillars and arcades, in the shade of extensive canopied terraces, at the edge of swimming-pools and beside fans, there dallies the painter´s ample white model and patroness, Drosie. But around this private and sheltered world lurk wide, dark and dangerous landscapes where rushing land-rovers and jeeps are caught by Richard Onyango´s nimble brush an instant before crashing through a bridge´s planks or lurching to a halt in mud. Richard Onyango was born in 1960 and lives and works in Malindi, a city on the Kenyan coast.
Life in Richard Onyango´s pictures is a catastrophe. But the gruesome shudder engendered by a plane exploding in mid-air or a hunted jeep faltering at the edge of a swamp is not without humour. His dramatic approach owes something to the cinema and makes the viewer an accomplice to fear and horror, whose tension he may briefly bear.

Richard Onyango was born in Kisii in Kenya in 1960 and won a national competition for young artists in 1982. He worked as a bus-driver, carpenter, farmer and animal-trainer before joining the group of artists Malindi Artist´s Proof in 1990 and beginning to paint more as a professional. He took part in the Kenyan popularisation of bill-board painting, which in Malindi gained an art-market and gallery of its own, whereby he soon became known beyond the borders of Kenya and held exhibitions in Italy, Germany and England.

Richard Onyango´s paintings in the 90s focussed on two themes: life with exasperating Drosie - his model and patroness - and mobility. Both sequences seemed to parody colonialists´ views, fears and longings. With the figure of Souzy Drosie, a voluminous English lady, he creates scenes reflecting ironically on the new and uncertain status of the artist. Beside the rosy expanse of Drosie´s flesh, spreading lazily out with no deference towards jogging, he appears as a lean young lover with little chance of counterbalancing his beloved´s weighty displeasure. So long as he is her satellite, he is subject to her moods. Hence Onyango reverses the usual pattern of tension between man and woman, black and white, with their struggle for supremacy in the domain of sexuality. His pictures respond to whole generations of colonial dreams and submissive gestures, in which the object of desire is made exotic.

Drosie on one occasion snuggles up to the back of a white buffalo, as if she had beaten it in single combat, but lingers mostly on her terrace savouring a landscape with limousines. The pictures suggest that the luxury of patronising art and artists is part of an extravagant life-style. Art as a ladder to social success presupposes Western conditions. Richard Onyango is pointing out bitterly that market-dependent art is part of a post-colonial heritage. He has also found a formula for the ambivalence of his new identity.

Even in his second thematic area, Richard Onyango refers to the recent past of his country - to land being taken over and exploited to little effect. Bulldozers, road-building machinery, land-rovers, buses: most of the technology needed for making headway is imported. Roads become a leitmotif showing the frailty of the economic and social situation. Folk who have been torn up from the old system but have found no alternative are stranded at the edges. Public transport is technically neglected and over-used in a daily game of chance survival. In picture after picture, Onyango has buses rush towards the viewer from a mysterious and indeterminate elsewhere as emissaries of a hectic uprooted society, no longer able to live in the here and now. They are always too fast for the safety of passengers, and too fast for the dubious ground and the buses´ resources. Onyango shows a feverish world spinning out of control.

Author: Katrin Bettina Müller


Richard Onyango was born in Kisii, in the district South Nyanza, in Kenya in 1960 and won a national competition for young artists in 1982. In 1990 he became a member of the group ´Malindi Artist´s Proof´, founded by Sarenco and other African artists. Onygano lives and works in Malindi.


Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation,
2006 "Africa Remix“, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan 2005 "African Art Now”, Museum of Fine Art, Houston, USA "Africa Remix“, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France "Africa Remix“, Hayward Gallery, London, Great Britain "Ousmane Ndiaye Dago - Georges Lilanga - Richard Onyango”, Africa Fondazione Albizzini, Città di Castello, Italy "Arts of Africa“, Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, France 2004 "Africa Remix“, Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, Germany 2002 "Inaugurazione“, Trevi Flash Art Museum, Trevi, Italy 1999 "La Tua Africa“, Monte Di Pieta, Messina, Italy 1996 "Sarenco and the Malindi Connection”, Black Gallery, Verona, Italy "Neue Kunst Aus Afrika“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany 1995 "Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa”, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Great Britain 1993 "Presenze Africane“, Rocca Centro per l´Arte Contemporanea, Perugina, Italy

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2003 "Laboratorio di Rochard Onyango“, Atelier del Baglio di Stefano, Ghibellina, Italy 2001 "Franco Cancelliere Arte Contemporanea”, Messina, Italy 2000 "A. Bonito Oliva“, Fabbrica EOS, Milan, Italy 1999 "Richard Onyango“, Fabbrica Eos, Milan, Italy "Richard Onyango”, Franco Cancelliere Arte Contemporanea, Messina, Italy "Richard Onyango - Drosie and me - 1990-1995“, Mamco - Musée d´art moderne et contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland 1993 "Afrikanissimo", Sparkasse und Marktplatz, Werne, Germany 1992 "The African Way of Painting”, Gallery of Contemporary East, Nairobi, Kenya 1991 "One Man Exhibition“, Malindi Art Gallery, Malindi, Kenya

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