Questions of power and agency are fundamental to Ng’ok’s painting practice which explores the dynamics of human interaction, public and private. Bold swathes of colour, thin washes of paint and numerous fine lines depict bodies in a constant state of flux. Multiplying in number and shifting in scale, the human form is characterised by a restlessness that visualises the permeable line between intersections of identity.
For this body of work, Ng’ok takes the image of a handshake as a starting point to examine the division of power and its repercussions as they extend from the top downwards. Specifically she considers the gesture in the context of Kenya’s 2017 elections and the image of two presidential rivals shaking hands. Interested in the ways that individual action translates to collective experience, Ng’ok uses this public symbol of cooperation to ask questions about the performance of leadership and a leader’s relationship to their public. In particular, she considers the hopes and anxieties for the future which the handshake provoked, emotions that are heightened by the memory of violence in the wake of the 2007 election.
Using imagery drawn from social media and newspaper cuttings, the artist stages scenes with imagined protagonists and interactions. Military figures, politicians, court-judges, and protesting crowds proliferate across her canvases. Exploring war and protest as local and global events, Ng’ok considers their effects on the individual and collective psyche as experienced through the media or day to day experience. Building on her concept of ‘psychological riot’ – a form of internal protest against imposed patterns of thinking – the exhibition’s title, Between a rock and a hard place, speaks to the difficulties of change within any established system and the universal struggle to control your own narrative, as an individual or movement within the wider structure of society.
About the artist
Chemu Ng’ok (b.1989) lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. She was recipient of the Mellon Foundation's Visual and Performing Arts of Africa Masters Bursary (2016) and completed her Masters degree in Fine Art, Painting at Rhodes University, Grahamstown (2017). Last year she participated in the Fountainhead Residency in Miami, Florida. Ng’ok was selected to show five paintings at the Fourth New Museum Triennial, Songs for Sabotage, in New York (2018). Certain of these works were drawn from Self Esteem for Girls, a group of works first presented by SMAC Gallery (2017). Exhibitions include those at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London (2019); National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare (2017); SMAC Gallery, Stellenbosch (2016); Goodman Gallery, Cape Town (2015) and Rhodes University, Grahamstown (2014).