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The 3 Chapters: Family feast of art by three Soi generations

Visual Arts

The 3 Chapters: Family feast of art by three Soi generations

Friday June 30 2023

Maasai and their long-horn cows by Ancent Soi at One Off Gallery on June 25, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Thanks to the Soi’s family friend and curator Thom Ogonga, One Off Gallery is finally featuring the long-awaited exhibition of three illustrious generations of contemporary Kenyan art, all by the name of Soi.

‘The 3 Chapters’ is a seminal show, the sort that should be seen by anyone concerned with the reality of East African art. It’s also bound to go down as one, if not the most significant exhibition of 2023.

The BDLife has been a long-time admirer of all the Soi’s artworks. That includes the father Ancent who passed on about a year ago at the age of 85, his son Michael who, being something of an iconoclast has not aspired to be seen as a link in a family chain, and his daughter Malli who got to know her grandpa, but it was her dad with whom she spent hours in his studio, soaking up his artistic energy and blending it with her own playful artistry.


Malli Soi with her art at One Off Gallery on June 25, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

That playful spirit runs through all the family’s art although it takes on radically different forms, particularly between the two dads.

Ancent’s art focuses more on rural life among the people and the wildlife that still roamed freely as he grew up on the Yatta Plateau.

But by the time Michael came into being, the family had shifted to the city, and Ancent’s first-born son grew up there as did his artistic worldview.

That dichotomy is plain to see at One Off where both galleries are filled with three generations of the family’s artistic gifts.

Ancent’s art fills the arena gallerist Carol Lees calls her ‘loft’. It’s got a cornucopia of the first father’s paintings. It’s an art by a painter who has yet to be fully recognised for the merit, beauty, and importance of his work.


Malli on her horse by Malli Soi at One Off Gallery on June 25, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

In the past, it might have gotten trapped in an ethnographic collection since it exquisitely documents rural East African life.

Of course, since 1972 when his poster art won an Olympic poster competition that took him to West Germany where he was offered an extended art residency, his work has been recognised and exhibited in many parts of the world.

But this show ought to be given worldwide attention since Ancent’s most successful creations are his son and grandchild.

Michael’s impending birth was the reason Ancent refused German residency. He didn’t want to miss this important occasion, the birth of his firstborn, a babe who’d be blessed with having an artist for a dad.

It wasn’t easy since Michael was a rebel from the start and wished to map out his own course in life. That he has done, having become a brand’ in his own right.

But Michael is much more than a brand, although he is most likely the first Kenyan artist to use canvas shaped like shopping bags to paint the images he’s wanted to share.

Those bags have become a ‘designer item’ that countless young women have sought to own. He kept his price tag low enough so that anyone who wanted a piece of his art could have it.

Ever able to express his opinions through his art, Michael, like his dad, is a masterful storyteller although his stories are a far cry from the idyllic scenes of rural life that Ancent’s Maasai peasants seemed to enjoy.


Ancient Soi's children's game in Maasai at One Off Gallery on June 25, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

As an urbanite, he’s grappled with urban issues, everything from corruption among sportsmen, politicians, and foreign visitors with hidden agendas, to fellow Africans so keen to flee the region that they engage foreign ‘wives’ (preferably wazungus) and make them their ‘passports’ out of Africa.

Ruffling feathers

Michael’s stinging satire can ruffle feathers, not only among locals who don’t share his opinions with foreigners, like the Chinese who didn’t like his extended series about Chinese influence in the region.

His safest bet is painting beautiful Black women with giant Afro hairstyles and voluptuous rear ends. But even then, his women have generated controversy among the puritanical and judgmental who disapprove of disrobing women in public.

Michael makes satire out of serious subjects, thus giving people an opportunity to see these hot topics through the lens of laughter and a light touch. It’s that light touch that he has shared with Malli who he insists he never pushed into painting or drawing.


Michael Soi's satirical portrait of Chinese President Xi at One Off Gallery on June 25, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

“She is the one who first picked up a pencil,” Michael tells the BDLife at the exhibition opening. She’s not painting as much now, but she’s got Soi’s spirit of storytelling and artistry.

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