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Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2018 


15 February 2018

ARTLabAfrica sits with Kenyan artist Paul Onditi ahead of his solo presentation at Investec Cape Town Art Fair.

Paul Onditi

What is your background / where did you study / how did you became an artist? 

Born in Rachuonyo in Western Kenya, I was born an artist. I started to see the world through artistic eyes as early as I can remember. The first medium I ever used was my finger on the ground playing in the dust. I used to constantly call my mother to come see my creations before they blew away. Whilst at school, I used that as an opportunity to sharpen that creative talent before graduating and leaving Kenya for Germany where I ended up studying at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach am Main. Returning to Nairobi in 2010, almost 10 years later, I found my first studio and I haven’t stopped since. Every day I now continue my studies in my studio where I am a student both of others and myself.

What project are you working on now? 

I am continuing to work on my Background Series, looking at ways to explore background behaviours and investigating how the twist and turns, pros and cons come into effect based on the things that I now see today. 2018 is a new and exciting chapter to develop this series. My works are usually connected to each other, moving from one body to another and so we’ll see what happens.

Your trademark figure Smokey has disappeared from your current works. How has your work developed in this new series? 

Yes, Smokey has taken a walk and left me with the Backgrounds to deal with! I’m still trying to understand how things are falling apart, shrinking down, moving left, right and centre which is all dependent on the things that I see. Smokey represented this solitary existence of the human state of mind, a mysterious existence.  Over the years I tried to explore that solitary space, that vacuum that is protected and sealed, that is the same treasure Smokey was searching for. I realised that part of the reason I found myself smudging Smokey into his background was because his background informed a lot of who he actually was. Usually the foreground comes after the background, we are informed by our past but I am beginning to think that a lot of my work is now moving away from the foreground.


How does the current work comment on current global issues? 

After the disappearance of Smokey I started to investigate ongoing issues that have affected us in the past as well as today. I’m looking in particular at the current structural, geopolitical, social and economic upheavals that are accelerating all over the world. In search of this background information I find that nothing is new, that as humans we bounce back stronger and tend to eventually forget past issues, leading us back to where we started. It is a vicious cycle that I worry may never end. This is why this current series is very important to me, it digs deeper, explores and documents our backgrounds and questions world order.

Talk us through the current series you’ll be exhibiting in Cape Town this week. 

Part of my Background series, the works selected for Cape Town all comment on destruction, destabilisation of accepted world orders and patterns and the issues we are faced with getting out of hand. 


Some of the new paintings are larger than your old work. Why are you now working on such a large scale and how does the composition change when you do? 

Working on a larger scale allows me to share my energy without constraint and in more detail.  When working on a smaller surface I have to shrink down my ideas. Sometimes when I have bigger elements within smaller works it’s like I’m zooming in. When the energy is too much I need a bigger surface and I just have to start and let it take me where it takes me. I usually begin with an image and create energies around that object, when I feel like I’m losing that energy I move onto the next before blending and connecting them together. Those elements then become recurrent within my pieces and you will begin to recognise them.


Lets talk about the material you use. What first got you interested in painting on digital polyester inkjet plates? 

When I moved back to Nairobi from Germany I used to walk around a lot. I found myself in downtown Nairobi and came across someone carrying this small plastic plate. He pointed me to the shop and I ended up having to sacrifice my bus fair in order to buy one. It felt so precious but I started to experiment. I first used oils but because the base is plastic the material was resistant. I had to go back and buy more, experimenting further with wax, ink and other mediums. It was a long process of trial and error and probably took over a year to find the right method that I could build images with. I am now completely absorbed by the freedom and quality this material allows me, and all my works are built up through an intense experimental and technical process. 


You recently represented Kenya and the Venice Biennale. What other future projects do you have lined up? 

It’s another busy but great year, I’ll be preparing for Dakar Biennale in May before traveling to Italy for an artist residency in Umbria. It has been a long time since I last did a residency so I am looking forward to the experience and seeing what I find.

Paul Onditi in his studio
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