A series of body movements painted on canvas, with the man in motion at the opening of the art exhibition of Liza Mackay’s latest work titled ‘Choreography’ at the Red Hill Art Gallery, Kiambu 

Above: ”Choreography,” an art exhibition by Liza Mackay featuring Adam Chienjo at Red Hill, Kiambu. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

Published: The East African Nation 29 Jan-5 Feb 2022

Choreography is about movement in space,” states the tall and stately Liza Mackay, former contemporary dancer and art teacher. An alumni of Kenya High School where the arts was an institution (I’m know, I’m also an alumni of the school), Mackay then went on to study at St Martins School of Art in the UK.

“I love painting people, like some love painting landscapes or wildlife,” continues the artist, her work influenced by a woman who revolutionized dance in the early 19th century, the American dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham.

Graham’s ballets were inspired by a wide variety of sources, including history and mythology, many portraying great women such as Joan of Arc, and Emily Dickinson.

As such, Mackay’s latest work, Choreography, is inspired by Adam Chienjo who captures the audience with his repertoire of postures crafted into contemporary dance, against the backdrop of his body painted on canvas.  

Bare skin save for the black lycra shorts stretched on to his lithe but muscled frame, Chienjo moves in the space, muscles taut and then relaxed, at times limber and then holding his frame into a statuesque frame. It reflects on Graham’s technique based on the opposition between contraction and release, a concept based on the breathing cycle which has become a ‘trademark’ of modern dance forms that would ‘increase the emotional activity of the dancer’s body.’

For Chienjo, a contemporary dancer, he is no stranger to Mackay the former high school art teacher. He’s worked as an artist’s model for Mackay and an art teacher himself.

Mackay’s bio reads that during her four years at St Martins School of Art her favourite class was the life drawing lessons. When she began teaching life drawing to high school students, she writes, “I would always start with the understanding of the structure of the body, the skeleton, the muscles that allow us to move and the proportions of the body. Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ is a wonderful guide on proportions. But finally and possibly most important is to see the rhythms created by the figure as it moves and rests.
 
“So the figure has been a constant in my life, either drawing and painting it or moving within my own body as a contemporary dancer.”

Like Graham, Mackay combines dance and drawing in Choreography.
“In classical ballet, you start with your feet like this (turned 90 degree outward) which holds the body upright but in contemporary dance your feet are pointed forward, allowing more movement.”  In this, contemporary dance follows no rules, rhythmic to the soul like African and Asian folk dance, while classical ballet demands rules to be followed.

 Working in oils because it gives depth in colour, the collection is against white canvas that allows for the muscles and postures to stand stark. An exception are a duo of two in colour from ancient Egypt that echo two contemporary dance moves from the ancient Egyptian figures.

Mackay’s collection also includes two canvases with fragmented figures that are an experiment and an attempt to show movement. It forces the viewer’s eye to move with the juxtaposition of different poses melded on a single canvas.

The contemporary dance was complemented with an ancient nyatiti played by Kake Wakake, plucking the strings of the musical instrument traditionally associated with the Luo from the lakeshores of Victoria in western Kenya. 

“It takes a lot of practice to play it,” says Wakake. “You are plucking the strings with both hands, using your foot to drum the percussion and sing at the same time.” 

The exhibition runs until 27 February. For more, log on to www.redhillartgallery.com