Agnes Njoroge, Three views of Oppede,ink, charcoal and pastel on paper,58.5 x 73.66 cm. 2016
by Agnes Njoroge
Personally, representations of landscape interests me beyond the norm because I have been attached to many different landscapes. For one Kenya a landscape interrupted by British presence during the colonial era; – buildings, railways, roads and plans stay intact within the natural landscape of Kenya. Similarly in Mbabane, Swaziland, living on top of a hill in a school built by students seeking to flee apartheid régime. A beautiful “under developed” city where the hills and valleys seem to swallow the cityscape. Finally in Lacoste, France where I have experienced the true potential of light and colour.
The representation of landscape has changed greatly since landscape painting first emerged. Being in a mecca for landscape painting and considering myself an artist who deals with the language of landscape I had to ask what the relevance of landscape painting is today. I believe to answer this question we must first go back and look at the history of French landscape painting as I am currently in Lacoste, France.
Between 1800 and 1900, French landscape painting underwent a remarkable transformation from a minor genre rooted in classical traditions to a primary vehicle for artistic experimentation. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries landscape ranked near the bottom of the hierarchy of genres because depictions of flora and fauna neither relate learned tales nor require knowledge of human anatomy. Matisse, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Renoir and many more have been heavily inspired by Provence’s landscapes, they were all interested in representing the landscape in one way or another. Cezanne was interested in using nature to represent true perspective and understanding how to represent a three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface. He emphasized surface and structure, dividing mountains and innumerable flat, rectangular planes that he creates with clear strong brush strokes. Even with such a clear focus we can distinguish a Cezanne landscape to any other painter who might have achieved all the things he was exploring. I believe a landscape can be far more than just an aesthetic rendering of a natural scene. Many of the painters mentioned above dealt with landscape in personal ways, allowing us a chance to decode what they were experiencing while they were painting.
Paul Cézanne, Aix-en-Provence,65.4 x 81.6 cm, Oil on canvas, 1882–85.
Similarly, contemporary landscape painting today is able to convey the artist’s personal experiences. If one were to think of James Turrell as a painter they would consider him a landscape painter. Turrell creates space itself, a new type of landscape one without horizon causing the viewer to lose their sense of up and down and have to navigate their way through a new world, a world Turrell believes we are arriving at. Turrell’s manipulation of perspective creates this new landscape leaving you bewildered and in awe just as most new landscapes make us feel. I remember arriving in Lacoste, France, everything was breathtaking and new, I was awestricken, I watched every sunrise and sunset for two weeks. I walked around in the mornings when the village was empty so that I could take it in for what it is without people, events and memories attached to it. As the light of Provence attracted painters such as Matisse, Van Gogh, Cezanne and so on. Turrell uses light to create a new perspective, allowing us to experience landscape in a different way.
James Turrell (b. 1943), Breathing light, LED light into space,Dimensions variable, 2013. © James Turrell; photo © Florian Holzherr
Architecture has also become part of our landscape today; – it is nearly impossible to exist in a natural un-interrupted landscape. Julie Mehretu uses architectural structures to create large-scale map landscapes that often speak of political and social tensions. Mehretu is originally from Ethiopia but her work speaks of many places at once. She looks at cities as points of departure, particularly the accelerated, compressed and densely populated urban environments of the 21st Century. In her work, she overlays different architectural features with geographical schema such as charts, building plans and city maps. She builds story maps of nonexistent locations through her representation of so much all at once. Mehretu like Turrell builds her own world, she has the ability to take buildings from Lagos and combine them with spaces from the Upper East Side in New York. In her early work, she speaks about a utopian cityscape where these two places related to each other. After September 11th Mehretu expresses that her work had to change and she had to record this changed political climate and no longer free moving landscape. She picks and chooses her source material from the world around us; the man-made landscapes we have today. Both these artists take from the natural world around us and create a new landscape, a new way of representing and understanding the world that we are living in.Julie Mehretu, Cairo (No. 14354), Ink and acrylic on canvas, 304.8 x 731.5cm, 2013.
I think of Mehretu’s paintings as going a long way toward articulating the disjunction of life as it’s lived today: as we circulate across reality and its mediations, constantly trying to reconcile daily experience. Mehretu and I having similar backgrounds of growing up inside and outside of things, living between continents, nations, cities, houses, languages and customs allows me to relate to her work directly. The uncertainty of identity, the tidiness of its spaces and the promises of a dream realm are all topics I see when looking at her work.
Landscapes are important because land is connected to humans. People and cultures have emotional and spiritual connections to land, to what was, and what has become ‘home’. Land is therefore linked to the human experience. Home is ever changing. When we say we are in a place, we make it seem like we are only inside a particular place, but those places are also within us. Humans collect information about their environment and this influences who they are and how they live. This idea becomes more complicated today as populations are becoming increasingly mobile and the changing landscape is extremely evident.
In African Art there has been heavy representation of landscape and the changing environments, the lack of “home” and the fight for authentic identity of land. Themes such as migration, refuge and home are common across the continent. The displacement of people has increased over the years. In Kenya, my most permanent home, we have refugees coming in from Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. More and more the government has been threatening to close down the refugee camps. The largest camp in Kenya is the Dadaab camp, home to 330,000 people (mostly Somali) leaving them homeless or forced to go back to a war stricken country. The government has chosen to close this camp in order to reduce threats to Kenyans, Al-shabaab, a Somali terrorist group that has caused the death of 150 university students among other attacks, has changed how Kenya is viewed. The feeling of safety that is associated with attachment to a place (home) has been eradicated for many Kenyans. These sorts of political and physical changes to the environment have caused new reactions and works reflecting the current issues of the land. Needless to say it is impossible to record space without time affecting it, landscape painting will forever be existing due to this. The social, political, cultural climates all influence our perception of space, Mehretu speaking from all of these climates creates an existing space one that is not just of land but of life and land combined. Turrell does a similar thing through speaking of technological advancements over time and how this has changed the way one would observe things, “no one looks up” he likes to say.
Ray Piwi, Untitled, photographic print on photo paper. Edition 1/5. 66.6 x 100 cm Photo Courtesy of Circle Art Gallery
All in all, I believe that representing the landscape will always be relevant. Its representation can come in many forms, not only an aesthetic representation of what is before us but a critical, emotional, reflective and responsive act that speaks of the human experience and more.