Richard Onyango’s Bodies

Drossie was so unique and familiar, and she was my first lady. Maybe she influenced me to see the big ladies first before the other ones. So when I see a big lady, it is much easier for me to see her than any other lady, and again, I discovered that most men don’t like fat ladies, so for me it is a disaster for the fat ladies, when they are in the community like any other person. (The Life and Times of Richard Onyango)

Richard Onyango’s bodies are unsettling.

Art journalist Margaretta wa Gacheru mentions Onyango’s “disturbingly fleshy forms,” noting that she “was never a great fan of Drosie in Onyango’s art.” In a tiny mention, James Murua claims that Onyango’s “most memorable works” feature his “fat lover Drosie.” Frank Whalley describes Drosie as a “woman of mountainous proportions,” writing, more generally of Onyango’s work, “Our Hero has some difficulty with proportions, too. Unless painting women with bodies like elephant seals at the height of the rut, generally his heads are too small and the bodies too long.” A young blogger wrestles with Onyango’s mind-body negotiation.

Of the (very little) commentary I have found on Onyango’s work, almost no one mentions his continual acts of self-portraiture. In fact, most of the so-called Drosie paintings depict Onyango with Drosie, and I find myself wondering about these critical acts of elision. What is it about Drosie that “disappears” Onyango? And what would it mean to read these two bodies together? What happens if, reading Whalley against the grain, we understand bodies in relation to Drosie? She is, Whalley suggests, the only one whose body is “proportional.” Everyone else is somehow excessive—the heads are “too small” and the bodies “too long.” Something interesting happens in these various readings of “excess,” something about how we imagine bodies to look and act. What might Onyango’s paintings make visible and imagine possible about bodies?

I find myself looking for Onyango in his paintings, intrigued by the multiple acts of self-portraiture that struggle against a critical desire to make him disappear. Often, he is overwhelmed by Drosie: cast in the shadow of a foreground she dominates or smothered under her during an intimate encounter. His lean body compels us to think about masculine vulnerability. There are other ways to think about his lean-ness: the power differentials produced by class and race and geography—Drosie is a doctor and Kenyan Indian and wealthy, at least much wealthier than Onyango who, when they meet, is a part time musician.

Drosie’s desirability is never in question, even as it is variously tender and seductive, rapacious and overwhelming. This desirability makes a claim on the observer, a nagging claim that is difficult to engage. The obsessive nakedness of Onyango’s desire unsettles us: it’s always difficult to translate our desires for others, even and especially when those desires are non-normative. Those desires make claims on other people, soliciting, eliciting, inciting a range of responses—I am struck, again, by Whalley’s and Gacheru’s discomfort, especially Whalley’s insistence that Onyango’s women cannot be desirable.

Writers on Onyango’s work find it difficult to frame his work, or, put otherwise, find it difficult to theorize his aesthetic. Obligatory references to Ruben and Lucian Freud are made; his works are described as “cartoonish.” Whalley, in fine form, offers what I take to be the least generous assessment of Onyango’s style: “What would be condemned in an academically trained artist as breathtaking incompetence, with Onyango passes as charming; the articulation of a personal vision, presented with tenderness and humour.” (Here, I write “least generous” after several hours of wrestling with how to assess Whalley’s assessments—I disagree with most everything he writes about art.)

Yet, I also find useful Whalley’s term “charming,” because it attempts to arrest what is disturbing about Onyango’s work. What might words like “incompetence” mask? What assumptions about art and artists are at stake—the academically trained vs. the self-taught; the cosmopolitan visionary who knows enough to break the rules vs. the one who doesn’t even know there are rules to break. One could multiply these.

But I want to return to the experience of standing in front of Onyango’s Drosie paintings: to the sense of discomfort and shame that attends being invited (even compelled) to recognize and share in someone else’s desire—I have not yet mastered/mustered the cosmopolitanism that allows me to look at nudes and nakedness easily, and I think this lack is useful. I want to suspend, for a moment, the ways I know how to talk about male artists and female subjects, to pay attention to how Onyango’s insistent body forces me to another place I cannot yet name.

I want to put to the side the bodies I have learned to see through Gauguin, Rubens, Freud, Currin, Bourgeois, Walker, Mapplethorpe, Mutu, Nugent, even Soi, and work through and around the discomfiting presence (and pressure) of Onyango’s bodies.

(This post has been enabled by ML’s meditation on bodies.)

Edit: On further reflection, what I find disturbing about assessments of Onyango’s work has to do with the relation between “seeing” and the “imagination”: seeing is an act of the imagination. And those who fault Onyango–I am not claiming he cannot be faulted–often seem unwilling to think through, with, and around his imagination. I am interested in asking what his imagination extends and enables, to think of the world-building he expresses as it travels within his viewers’ minds and bodies.