Joseph Mbatia aka ‘Bertiers’ has got to be one of Kenya’s most important artists. More than a painter which he was trained for at the YMCA Craft Training Centre back in the 1970s, Bertiers is also a sculptor whose larger-than-life sculptures currently loom large at Alliance Française.
Nonetheless, it’s definitely his paintings that arrest art lovers in their tracks when they see the walls at the formerly named French Cultural Centre where Bertiers’ second solo exhibition, Sarakasi ya Siasa, opened last Wednesday night, July 13.
There’s so much going on in his paintings, so many stories contained in every single one. Some of them, Bertiers told BDLife took hIm more than a month to complete.
“This one has taken me four months, and it’s still not finished,” he said, referring to the monumental untitled painting that he brought to the exhibition in spite of its incomplete effort. “It’s my newest piece,” he explained, acknowledging that it’s most relevant to what’s happening in Kenya right now.
“It’s all about political campaign rallies,” he said, noting that it’s the first one to feature two of Kenya’s political newcomers, Wajackoyah and Ruto. Otherwise, those that are there include everyone in the race, from Raila and Uhuru to Martha, and many others.
“See Raila with the pastor,” he added, pointing to an unfinished portrait of Mzee. “He’s being baptised,” he observed with a twinkle in his eyes. Martha Karua is also nearby in the waist-high political waters. Then there is Ruto who is just starting to step into the deep as if he is testing the hot political waters.
Bertiers’ first art exhibition (he said he didn’t know that’s what it was at the time) was in Dagoretti Corner at a local tea drinkers café.
“I used to hang my small paintings on the walls. Then, I’d just sit in a corner and watch people’s reaction and listen to their comments,” he once told BDLife. That was where he met an American gallerist named Arnie Wolf from California.
Wolf used to come in and buy up all of his paintings. Bertiers later learned Wolf would quickly send them back to US for sale. Then he met Bertiers and advised him. He suggested the artist do research on political characters and paint them in his art. He’s been doing that ever since, starting in the Eighties.
Bertiers’ second solo exhibition has a retrospective edge to it. “Some of the work is 30 years old,” he said. Many [works] have never been seen by the public; nonetheless they chronicle much of Kenya’s post-independent political history.
It features stories ranging from Moi’s burning of ivory tusks in the 90s to ones featuring Obama and Putin. But few tell one story alone. They narrate the political mood of the time, including not only local but global characters, everyone from Kofi Annan, Hilary Clinton, and Tony Blair to Bill Clinton and a former US ambassador.
Indeed, one of the features that attract art lovers who linger over Bertiers’ art is the temptation to identify characters in his complex visual puzzles.
Probably his most chaotic portraits contain peri-urban landscapes which are filled to overflowing with matatus, buses, and kiosks, all of which have signs like Wajackoya’s Hyena and Hustler Hotel attached to them.
What’s clear is that Bertiers took Wolf’s advice seriously and keeps up with his research on the local and international news. One of his most uncharacteristic works was inspired by the late Bob Collymore, who shortly after marrying Wambui, decided to have a wedding party inviting local artists.
“They had held a private wedding and since none of the artists had been invited, many had worked side by side with Wambui when she was based at what was then Kuona Trust. The artwork included everyone from Patrick Mukabi, Tonney Mugo, and Gakunju Kaigwa to Kevin Oduor and Antony Okello. He also painted realistic portraits of both the German and American ambassadors to Kenya who’d been supportive of Kuona Trust.
“Surprisingly, Bertiers didn’t start creating welded metal sculptures until 1991. “I had hired some welders to come make security grids for my house,” said the artist. Those workers became his mentors, showing him elementary skills in welding which he’s been developing ever since.
Bertiers has also mentored many young aspiring Kenyans, most of whom have taken up his iconic style of painting. But none are as imaginative, irreverent, insightful, and ingenious as Bertiers.