Kenyan artist Paul Onditi’s richly layered multi-media paintings, somewhat reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s collages, depict a solitary existence; a lonely struggle against the dizzying forces of change in the midst of a rapidly changing landscape that is presumably his hometown.
These forces are not native to Africa and thus his condition is a universal one. Spurred on by the similacra of our hyperreal society, these images depict the ephemerality of contemporary existence and ultimately are a commentary on illusion and reality. Here, Onditi displays the bewildering moments of disorientation when one realizes that fiction has overtaken reality, due to the seductive power of the similacrum, a shimmering beacon of light, allowing it to become more real than reality itself. This is after all, the core tenet of hyperreality.
For Onditi, the similacra displayed here are fragmented and removed from context; they have become signs and symbols to convey meaning. While subjective in nature, one can take a guess as to what it means, for instance the capsule motif with a tree on top of it in Anonymous Smokey (2013) might be an architectural drawing seen against the cityscape, a sign of the proliferation of advertising for new housing developments. Another clue for this line of reasoning might be the repetitive use of the construction crane image, which is a symbol for a changing urban landscape, loss of collective memories etc..
And in Back To Back (2015) those squiggly white lines lead by white dots amidst white clouds resemble tear gas being fired into the air or black and white vines in a jungle.
Structured as a work of fiction by using a single, central character called ‘Smokey’ (that is presumably himself), these paintings describe his lonely attempts at navigating a confusing and disjointed world, with hopeful optimism sprinkled intermittently. In fact, he even titled one piece to this end; Me, Myself and I (2015).
The ground of the foreground, what Smokey is walking on, seems to be alloted some special attention. Whether it is a ‘washed up’ effect seen in Back To Back (2015), a glassy reflective effect in Me, Myself and I (2015) or a black tarmac look in Confronting Realities (2015), it seems to be about what he was really walking on, or what he felt like at the time or both.
What’s also mysterious is how he dates these paintings. Why does he put 0+1+5, instead of just 2015 for example? A clue might be found by looking at when he started this painting career, which is the year 2000 when he moved to Germany to study art, and so can be seen as an attempt to ‘chronologize’ the work in relation to when it all started.
The map like pattern on Smokey’s body in Confronting Realities (2015) seems to allude to the act of refering to guide maps to find one’s way around; something which might have been familiar with Onditi since he was a foreigner while studying in Germany, or just the daily life of navigating through the dictates of the art world as an artist.
The reverse silhouettes of male models walking down a fashion catwalk, in Deep Down Without (2016) gives the impression of the requirements to ‘perform’, to walk a certain way for clients, in a profession. Perhaps even as an artist, Onditi feels this need to perform in a certain way, to define and maintain a certain image of himself, which in the end is the only constant in an increasingly fragmented life.
In Subdued (2017), a collage of buildings and landscape scenery fill up a mountain plateau, which is startling since the word subdue normally implies something that happens to a person, but in this case it is seemingly nature itself being subdued by a multitude of man made environments. A certain irony becomes evident, which is when nature, something that’s wild to begin with, becomes subdued by the proliferation of the man-made. The man-made in this scenario, is what in turn becomes ‘wild’.