Paul Onditi and The Adventures of Smokey The Time Traveling Ghost

Regardless Negative

Paul Onditi is a Kenyan artist formally based at Kuona Trust, and in 2017 was selected to participate in what for any artist would spell out the height of their career—the Venice Biennale. 

Before all of that though, I met him in his small studio on a school trip to Kuona Trust. Walking into his studio; the photography film was stacked on every available surface. Ink splatters stained the floor, the walls, and the ceiling, and his work was taped up everywhere. I almost stepped on pieces that are now selling for thousands of dollars. Mumbling my apologies, I looked around, and discovered that he’s an artist that creates entire worlds.

 Filmstrips, prints, layers of paint and bleach on polyester inkjet plates are just some of the mediums he uses in his work.  The background is always changing, constantly evolving to reflect the mapping of a relentlessly urbanised city. Bright colours are contrasted with the darkest blacks and the most piercing whites to construct a background that is sheer chaos, confusion, and fragmentation. Throughout all of this though  stands the same solitary, lonely figure that Onditi affectionately refers to as “Smokey”.

In an increasingly disparate and ever-changing landscape, Smokey is the anchor that floats in the foreground. The isolated, anonymous figure pulls the eye right away. There’s a longing to Smokey as he moves about unchanging, in between time and space, a singularity in all the chaos.

Quite a few interviews on Onditi in his early career refer to the clear environmental focus in his work, which was relevant in 2009 and remains even more pressing now. However, my interest is continually drawn to that figure, Smokey. There’s a  literary eye to the way Onditi produces his work, and a sense of nostalgia evoked through the use of old photos and newspaper clippings, even going so far as to inscribe faint words and strips of poetry in the background, so subtle you could blink once and miss it. The clear literary inspiration invites a  closer reading of his work and is remeniscent of the kinds of characters written by Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah in his 1968 debut novel The Beutyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. 

The main character of The Beutyful Ones is simply known as “The Man”. He drifts through a post-independent Ghana, an alienated figure that seems untouched by time, but sees everything. Throughout the novel there’s  an unrelenting sense of decay, and through this anonymous figure Armah provides a scathing commentary on the rot of colonisation, and the confusion and struggle for identity Ghana was left in. 

The spectre of capitalism looms throughout the novel, and The Man comments on a society where “cars and houses are acquired in a matter of days”.1 This never-ending cycle of consumption and waste circulates throughout the novel, and time becomes meaningless. 

A linear understanding of time: where there is a clear beginning, middle, and end fades away and The Man exists through it all, watching helplessly as the collective struggle for identity gives way to corruption and greed. He criticises  the “post”  in “post colonisation”, revealing the psychological trauma of having our collective identities erased is a phenomenon that stands outside linear time, that this trauma lives in our collective memory and can’t be quantified or scrubbed away. 

In Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngũgũ wa Thiong’o describes the mental state of the victims of cultural colonisation as far more damaging than even economic colonisation. He describes a ‘cultural bomb’ which induces a change in the psyche of the colonised and has the power to “annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves”.2 This sense of disorientation is reflected in the characters of The Man and Smokey. In the dilapidated, fractured chaos of their cityscapes  they wander endlessly, forever.  

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat bread in my room with all the lights off.

Have a great week! 

 

Footnotes
  1. Ayi K Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not yet Born (London U.A.: Heinemann, 1991), pg. 89.
  2. Ngũgĩ Wa Thiongʼo, Decolonising the Mind : The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: J. Currey ; Portsmouth, N.H, 1986), pg.3.