Richard Onyango’s Memory Work

I came to Richard Onyango later than I should have. Which is to say, I came to know about him later than I should have, even though I recognized his work and style, especially his Drosie portraits. In (or around) 2008, Kwani? published The Life and Times of Richard Onyango, a narrative of his life as told to and written by Binyavanga Wainaina. Onyango details his life and work, his rise from someone who used to decorate buses to an internationally renowned artist. (I abbreviate a much richer narrative.)

As detailed in Life and Times, Onyango started drawing and painting buses and tractors in the mid-1970s—he would draw pictures of matatus and sell them for twenty shillings at matatu stations. This attention to modes of mobility and how they intersect with Kenyan history recurs in his recent exhibition at Gallery Watatu, which features, among other things, memory objects from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, recent paintings depicting a recent past (it also includes imagined pasts, including two paintings in which Onyango imagines himself in ancient Egypt, as a mate or servant to Drosie in one painting and to Deb in another). I found myself returning to paintings that featured buses and trains, wondering what it was that captured Onyango’s imagination and what it was that kept pulling at mine.

East Africa Bus History, 1967-1987 (2009), depicts five buses—I confess, I tried to figure out how history functions by looking at their number plates, but this is beyond my abilities. From left to right, these were the number plate numbers and destinations: KJH 121 – Garissa; KJN 912 – Galole; KJM 705 – Bungoma; KQY 201 – Lamu; KJY 400 – Mombasa-Kisumu.

Parked in a bus depot, empty, perhaps awaiting passengers, the buses offer an imaginative geography of Kenya, imagining a space that stretches from Garissa to Bungoma, from Galole to Lamu, and from Mombasa to Kisumu. Intriguingly, of the five buses, only the one from Mombasa to Kisumu lists a potential origin and destination—the rest list single locations. It’s not clear where the depot is. I returned to this painting several times, thinking about movement and stasis, about the relationship between space and place, about the imaginations enabled by and embedded in transport narratives, about how nations are imagined in and through public modes of transportations.

Now—I write this several weeks later—I wonder how the bus imagines the nation it traverses and how it registers, in distance, in wear, in scent, in texture, the world it marks and that marks it. I am reminded of Armah’s amazing description of the bus in the opening scenes of The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born. Armah’s bus is an accretion of sounds and smells, repeated and missed encounters, scenes of subject aggrandizement and diminution.

East African Railways 1969 (2009) depicts a train in motion, winding through a landscape of greens and browns, filled with passengers, barely visible in the many carriage cars. While many accounts (and images) of the Kenya-Uganda railway focus on how landscapes were changed during the railway’s construction, the relative anonymity of the passengers in Onyango’s painting, the absence of stations and towns, and the lush landscape compel me to ask how the landscape shaped the passengers who moved through it. How did the landscape imagine and experience the snake that trained through it? What did it mean to be carried on the much-prophesied-about snake?

In the short biography featured on African Colours, Onyango terms his earliest sketches “photo pictures,” noting that he didn’t have a camera and so drew to remember the rapidly unfolding modernity he witnessed. Forthcoming work by Kenda Mutongi and Mbugua wa Mungai similarly meditates on Kenyan mobilities by focusing on matatu cultures as an index of Kenyan entrepreneurship and culture work. This is, perhaps, an aside, though I think there are interesting ways to think through what these three figures might offer each other.

There is also much more to be written about the notion of the “photo picture” and what it suggests about Onyango’s aesthetic, especially given his use of scale and perspective. But I’ll leave such discussions to those trained to talk about painting and the visual arts.

A remarkable amount of memory work is taking place in Kenyan arts. Recent (and forthcoming) books by Shailja Patel, Rasna Warah, Binyavanga Wainaina, Yvonne Owuor, and Billy Kahora (fiction and non-fiction) all focus on scenes and events and objects from the recent present. (Here, let me plug a forthcoming book from David Kaiza on Idi Amin that will be absolutely wonderful—Kaiza is an amazing writer. Note, I use “forthcoming” in more or less academic terms, anywhere from the next few months to two or more years.)

I have yet to get any handle on this memory work—not simply what is being remembered in an amazing variety of ways, but also how it is being remembered. (Here, one could also mention Maina wa Kinyatti’s incredible number of histories produced in the last few years and the kinds of political alignments and re-alignments they suggest. It’s also worth noting that it’s only in the recent past that the Wagalla massacre has become available as a public object.)

At a time when much of our national (political) rhetoric seems to suggest the possibility of only two options, a complete break with the past or its continuation, and at a time when we risk privileging either ethno-racial purities or proclaiming the salvific power of hybridities, I find myself wondering what the accumulation and circulation of various memory objects might enable, wondering about the uses of what Nairobians might term chorochoro routes to other elsewheres.

It is, perhaps, this metaphorical mapping of directed space that provides the occasion to think of Onyango’s memory work, of the potential and accumulated mobilities that his work suggests. And this thinking probably inevitable at a time when our roads and routes are in complex processes of extension and transformation.