Northern Kenya and contemporary London leap off the campus in Fortitude, the stunning first solo show of British painter Pie Herring.
Last year, Pie Herring was invited to spend six weeks at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya. She ended up staying for six months, meeting, speaking to and eventually painting Lewa’s locals. Those individuals, their stories and these paintings now form the heart of her new show, Fortitude.
Fortitude is a reddish orange. Even on a grey December day, and despite its barren setting – an abandoned retail space at 94-96 Wigmore Street in Marylebone – one is greeted by the deep coloured dirt of East Africa. While the subjects range from small children to village elders, all come together in front of the same striking backdrop Herring replicates in each Kenyan painting.Array
During the six months Herring spent in Lewa, she got to know members of the Maasai tribe – typically meeting them at least two or three times before photographing them for her work. The conservancy aides communities surrounding the safari park, and the reason for Herring’s invitation was to detail how Covid-19 and was effecting their lives. For her, it was therefore crucial to find the stories behind the faces and families and incorporate them into the work.
Loikwa, for example, grew up in an impoverished village on the outskirts of Lewa. He is one of 10,000 children to have benefited from Lewa’s education programme, earning a scholarship to a school in Nairobi. But, forced home by the pandemic, he now has to work with livestock during the day and complete his schoolwork at night. In the painting, the iPad case he was given by the school is tucked onto his hip, while a goat lies at his feet. His two polarising lives subtly coincide.
These same minute details feature in all the paintings, but perhaps the most personal story Herring encountered came from a farmer called Daniel. The father of three daughters, Herring went to meet Daniel’s family and photograph them on their farm, but a downpour forced them inside. Once the rain subsided, they made their way outside and Herring and Daniel spoke.
“He was really concerned about what’s been happening in their village because of Covid,” she explains. “Teenage pregnancies have increased, because girls are not considered, or not valued, as much as boys. [To make ends meet in Covid] they’ve been going and selling themselves to older men, and Daniel said he was really worried about his girls – his oldest daughter is 14.”Array
This stark conversation made Herring paint the setting she did. While the rest of the family look into the camera, Daniel and his eldest daughter stare into the distance, their minds clearly elsewhere.
It’s easy to forget both the breadth and variety of Covid’s impact. Where people in the West have suffered the mild inconvenience of not being able to go on holiday, people in places like Lewa have had their income slashed by the lack of tourism. Young girls, who perhaps worked on farms or in kitchens or in the hotels, have now had to turn to prostitution to get by.
The social commentary in Herring’s Kenyan work may be nuanced to a British audience, but it’s been present throughout her career. She spoke to whynow two years ago about how womanhood was shaping her art in lockdown, and it shapes her most recent work as well.
For Fortitude is not just Herring’s art from Kenya. The exhibition also features paintings she’s done since being back in London. These works reflect this city, since Herring returned to the capital: protests and vigils meet bin men and sleeping children, now on a predominantly grey backdrop. They exist both a world away and immediately beside the planes of Lewa.
In them, Herring explores how humans turn to nature in times of distress. Flowers and flames are cradled and reached for in paintings from those vigils and protests. Herring only noticed this retrospectively, when looking back through imagery she collected.
These moments of nature also escape the traditional confines of the canvas. In some cases, this means their paint trickling down onto the frame or out onto the sides. In others, Herring uses wax so the nature quite literally climbs out and rests atop of the frame. The walls of the painting are broken. They become 3D pieces for the viewer to interact with.Array
The wax technique is clearest in the large scale paintings of hands reaching down to grab flowers. Herring notes that viewers have compared the hands to those in the Sistine chapel, stretching for something they’re never going to quite reach, and the effect is enhanced by the flowers quite literally climbing off the canvas. Wax flowers are also found in a smaller painting of a man emptying bins in London, titled The Rewilder.
The Rewilder might be my favourite work from the exhibition. The Kenyan paintings are remarkable depictions of a place I do not know. The masked binman beneath a messy sky is how I know a place I call home.