Agnes Waruguru: Dreaming of Purple Palm Trees

In Reality, Dreaming of Palms, 2020. Image Credit: Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya.

Agnes Waruguru is a young up-and-coming artist from Nairobi, Kenya who recently launched her first solo exhibition at the Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi called Small Things To Consider that ran from the 10th of September 2020 to the 9th of October 2020. She works mainly in textiles and found objects, and often uses old pillowcases, bits of cotton, old towels from her own home and incorporates these items into her paintings. Small Things was conceptualised during her residency at Saba Studios, Lamu and is a departure from her more muted work using vibrant washes of colour and impressionistic interpretations of her environment. 

I stumbled across this series before it officially opened. There were still scuff marks on the pristine white floor of the Circle Gallery, a ladder discarded in the corner, someone’s old overalls draped over a chair in the middle of the room. I didn’t come for the exhibition, and I had never heard of Agnes Waruguru, I just wanted to see the permanent exhibition in the back. As I was passing through, a flap of red fabric caught my eye, it fluttered in the breeze next to the front door I forgot to close. 

Across the ceiling was what looked like a clothesline lined with small pieces of fabric, gently swaying. Curious, I looked around the empty gallery, and my gaze landed on a painting labelled, In Reality, Dreaming of Palms (2020). Now, it wasn’t a painting in the traditional sense, not what we would think of on stationary canvas or board, but on fabric. The texture gave the piece a dynamism, a movement, but also a sense of the ethereal as it moved with the wind. In this painting Waruguru creates a dreamscape using the faint brushes of purple palm trees against a background that would look simple if not for the faint splatters of green and black dye, peppered with hints of blue suggesting the ocean. 

Suggestion seems to be a central aspect of her work; suggestion, and atmosphere. The vibrancy of the colours she uses to highlight certain attributes, like the purple palm trees, lends this series a sense of whimsy and lightness. Familiar landscapes are collapsed to make room for imagined landscapes. The lightness and  breadth of imagination in this series are contrasted with the harsh addition of plastic lining the lower walls of the exhibition, and in her artist’s statement she details her time in Lamu and her shock at seeing a level of construction and waste that she hadn’t anticipated. The jarring contrast is present in the exhibition and evokes a sense of discomfort when viewed alongside the dreamy surrealism of her abstract landscapes.

Seeing a Plant, Seeing a Curtain, 2020. Image Credit: Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya.

Landscapes as inspiration to the artistry of any kind holds a prominent place in art of any cannon, and the psychological reaction to nature was detailed by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). In this work Burke explores a concept called the “sublime”—where he details the mingled sense of beauty and terror inspired by natural phenomena. He says, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the idea of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime”. 1 This understanding of the sublime went on to inform a whole host of Romantic-era poets and writers such as Mary Shelly who wrote Frankenstein, to Keats to Byron. The idea of an intermingled terror while viewing anything in nature—that with beauty comes an equally proportionate sense of dread was widely explored through art and poetry during the Victorian period.

The interesting thing about Waruguru in her series Small Things, is that she takes the notion of the sublime and reverts it to include human interference. For Victorian era poets the sublime was encapsulated by the contrasting of green rolling hills and mists on the moors to the vastness of a thunderstorm or the mercurialness of an earthquake. While in 2020 it’s microplastic, oil spills and global warming. The vibrant colours, fine-lined textures, and the euphoria depicted in her abstract nature scenes are contrasted with the horror of plastic and waste and man-made destruction. The terror of the sublime in Small Things doesn’t lie in nature’s destructive nature, but in the destructive nature of human beings. 

Footnotes
  1. Arya, Rina. 2013. Bill Viola and the SublimeTate.org.Uk. Tate. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research publications/the-sublime/rina-arya-bill-viola-and-the-sublime-r1141441.