Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Prints... Then & Now

Hmmm! My first encounter with printmaking involved potatoes, scalpels & tempera paints on sugar paper! That must’ve been 25ish years ago.

The last time I did a comprehensive body of limited edition prints was 2008. Now am back!
And since that’s all that’s all over my studio, I recently had a very interesting conversation about prints with some guests - from the history, techniques, value, methods, ethics and renowned printmakers to the position of prints in the contemporary art world. It made me realize that as much as we may have been dabbling in the arts for (a handful) decades, most of us have just a slight understanding of them that makes us not fully comprehend their value within the contemporary art platform.

There are many different printmaking techniques but my point of reference today is woodcuts.

Woodcuts (according to online encyclopedias) is a relief printing artistic technique in which an image is carved into the surface of a block of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed, typically with gouges. The areas to show 'white' are cut away with a knife or chisel, leaving the characters or image to show in 'black' at the original surface level. The surface is covered with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller, leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas. Hmmm! It's actually easier to demonstrate than explaining the process!

The history of woodcuts can be traced to 15th century Europe where they were used for book illustrations long before they attained the status of single leaf fine art prints made popular by Albrecht Dürer (German artist & theorist). It reached a high level of technical and artistic development in East Asia and Iran around the 17th century for both books and art.
Japanese woodcut became a major artistic form, although at the time it was accorded a much lower status than painting.

Untitled Picasso (l) and Edvard Munch's "Death Bed"

The 20th century revolutionized printmaking with some of the most prolific artists, notably Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, Franz Masereel, Max Beckman and Pablo Picasso continuing to use the medium, which came to appeal because it was relatively easy to complete the whole process, including printing, in a studio with little special equipment.

Unfortunately, there are no clear records of when printmaking ‘arrived’ in Africa. However, what am sure about is that my love affair with prints started in 1997. It wasn't love at first sight but we kind of slowly got attracted to each other.

As a requirement of any young lad/lass keen on joining Kuona Trust , then also called the Museum Art Studio, one was given a piece of plywood, black process ink and basic engraving tools. This must have been Rob Burnet's idea of knocking some sense of patience and discipline into us while discouraging idleness within the space.
With the aid of a jua kali assembled press, Richard Kimathi and Dickson Keke taught us newer folks basic printmaking – both theory and practical. Justus Kyalo introduced us to Bruce Onobrakpeya & Tayo Quaye by forcing us to look at their work.
Later, seasoned Ugandan Theresa Musoke and Tanzanian Robino Ntila taught us more serious stuff. The details of professional printmaking.

By 1999, I was experimenting with multi-coloured wood cut prints and at the turn of the millennium, was privileged to work with Namibian Ndasuunye 'Papa' Shikongeni, Ugandans Fred Mutebi & Henry Mujunga alongside locals Peterson Kamwathi & Ngene 'Small One' Mwaura who were willing to push the boundaries of prints locally.

From left; Bruce Onabrakpeya, Peterson Kamwathi and Zacharia Mbutha

Around 2005/5, I embarked on a serious experiment (playfully titled D) where the aim was to make prints that looked like paintings. After numerous early mornings, chronic back aches and lots of frustration, I got the much needed validation from my then studio mate Panye Mukabi. Ironically, I enjoyed the process so much that after that, I started experimenting trying to make paintings that looked like prints! Am not so far off the mark.
Today, 15 years after my first professional contact with prints, I look at prints by Kenyan artists and see the gains the local printmaking industry has made and is proud to have been part of the team.

From left to right; Ogonga Thom's Seating Naked (2000), Untitled (2008/12) & Good Bad Girl (2012)

However, most patrons of the arts still view it as a secondary media. A cheaper option to painting and sculpture. Most people still view oil painting on canvas as the ultimate with works on paper coming in second and works that are made in multiple editions (prints & photographs) coming at the bottom of the food chain. While photographs are "consumed" in numerous platforms, prints belong ‘in the gallery’ but are unable to stake their claim on the podium coz of prejudice and stereotypes that push it towards the craft market.

Phrases like, “But it’s just a print” or “They are supposed to be cheap” are still common where prints are involved. We need (and have been trying very hard) to sensitize people that prints are artworks just as strong as paintings, installations & sculptures. It’s an audios task that is sometimes hampered by rogue artists keen on making a quick buck by peddling their prints as cheap crafts.

When we ask ourselves why we do prints, or why we interact with them, alot of answers spring to mind. Some are intelligent. Some selfish. Some silly. Some? Just some! However we all agree on one thing. That we’ve come a long way. So long prints used to sell for 700 bob (long story that can only be narrated by Kim + Soi) and only belonged in that old rack at the East African Contemporary Art Gallery at the Nairobi Museum.

We’ve grown. Not only in age, height and weight but also in technical and intellectual ability. So next time you interact with prints, kindly give it the little respect it deserves. Even if they’re just prints.

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