Art and culture

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The grotesque but authentic Kenya of Bertiers

Portrait of the artist who spread a style imitated by many

01-10-2022 by Freddie del Curatolo

His works boast countless attempts at imitation throughout East Africa, some of them even successful. Joseph Mbatia Bertiers' name does not say much outside Kenya, but his paintings showing the colourful, messy, vibrant humanity of African cities and suburbs are everywhere. You find them full-wall in cafes, in prints in gadget and stationery shops, in cultural centres and on the street, skilfully reproduced. As well as in many art galleries and in many homes in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities.

For more than 20 years, Bertiers has continued to churn out paintings on plywood boards, often embellished with inscriptions and slogans, which show in an ironic and often grotesque manner markets, matatu terminals and other gathering situations from which iconic and suspicious characters of Kenyan society emerge, but also situations distorted by the many clichés about this land.
He started out as a cartoonist and illustrator, although like many in his youth he had to scrape by painting signs for bars, beauty salons and other small businesses in the capital.
He later produced humorous drawings, commenting on extreme or simply curious situations from all over the world. He did this thanks to the voracity with which he fed himself on magazines, publications and any other source of news and images from the world.
Finally, Bertiers' chance to make the leap came when the American collector Ernie Wolfe saw his first 'African Bruegel' works in a bar outside Nairobi.
Wolfe was so intrigued by Bertiers' unfiltered portrayal of Kenya, threading foibles, peculiarities, follies, dreams, heroism and silliness, popular enthusiasm and tragedy into the same work, that he sought out the artist and became his patron. Since then, Bertiers has been able to work with more tranquillity and give us his vision, so true in its paradoxicality.

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