Mbatia: Chilhdhood antics, humour influence my art

Artworks by Joseph Mbatia also known as Bertiers during his second exhibition at the Alliance Française.

Artworks by Joseph Mbatia also known as Bertiers during his second exhibition at the Alliance Française on July 21, 2022
 

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In spite of the tribulations, Mbatia did not abandon his passion for art and is today one of the heavy hitters, when it comes to visual art in the country.
  • The playfulness and naughty nature never left him; he incorporated them into his art and that is what gives his work an edge.


As a young boy, Joseph Mbatia was always getting into trouble due to his love for art, which somewhat interfered with his school work.

"Some of my teachers had managed to convince my mother that I was not interested in school work and that I spent all my time drawing things," says Mbatia.

Exasperated, the mother felt that the only way of dealing with her son's truancy was to make him skip dinner.

"I was okay with that form of punishment as long as it gave me the freedom to engage in my art," he adds.

Always the creative and naughty boy, Mbatia crafted a new way of going around his hunger problems.

At home, one of the family chickens was brooding. Mbatia snatched one of the eggs from the chicken and proceeded to mark some patterns using his pen.

"I then collected some dry skin that had been peeled off a lizard's body," he recalls with a cheeky smile.

He took the painted egg and lizard skin and carefully placed them beside the brooding hen and proceeded 'raise alarm'.

"I swore to my mum that the painted egg belonged to a snake and proof of that was in the dead lizard skin," he recalls.

"I told her that the rest of the eggs would soon be contaminated by the 'snake egg'.

Sufficiently alarmed, the mother ordered her son to get rid of all the eggs.

And that is how the young man got himself something to eat on the nights his truancy knocked him off the dinner table.

God-given talent

In spite of the tribulations, Mbatia did not abandon his passion for art and is today one of the heavy hitters, when it comes to visual art in the country. Artistically, he goes by the modified name, Bertiers.

He owes the reduction of his mother's hostilities, towards his art, to the man who later on married his eldest sister.

"The man managed to convince my mother that the only way to deal with my truancy was to buy me a drawing book and some colouring pencils, which he did," explains Bertiers.

"He reckoned that if mine was a God-given talent, then I would pursue it as a career and if it wasn't, I would soon outgrow it. Here I am today."

The playfulness and naughty nature never left him; he incorporated them into his art and that is what gives his work an edge.

His is a fusion of graffiti and old-school barroom murals, which offer a social commentary on day-to-day life.

"As an artist, it is my duty to observe the society and depict the same on canvas or in my sculptures," he explains. "Consumers of my art come away with their own interpretations."

A typical Bertiers piece is packed with so much detail one requires sufficient time, even then one is bound to miss some aspects.

But the common theme in his art is humour; humour and pranks that not even his teachers and mother could beat out of him.

Seated on one of the benches at the Alliance Française restaurant area, Bertiers recalls an incident when, while in primary school, when he played a prank on a teacher who used to beat them on a whim.

"The man would barely be inside the class but would shout a maths question; woe unto you if you do not know the answer. The beating would be savage," he recounts.

One day, he picked a ripe mango from a group of girls who had carried them to class, peeled it and placed it on the path of the teacher.

He stepped on the exposed mango, slid and fell on the floor with a resounding thud.

"I actually saw the teacher wipe away a tear. He left the class without uttering a word and I knew we were in trouble. He came back accompanied by the headmaster, who went ahead to give us an epic beating," he recalls.

Circus of politics

Titled Sarakasi za Siasa (the circus of politics) Bertiers works are timely, especially during these political moments.

His works take a biting and savage look at our brand of politics. His is a take-no-prisoners approach.

"Isn't it weird that a politician will take to the podium to savage another politician, yet a few days later praises the very same leader they were savaging? Gullible masses will still cheer these duplicitous politicians and elect them into office," says Bertiers.

Using his paint and brush, Bertiers immortalises the shame and hypocrisy that has become our politics, on canvas, for posterity.

A troubling feature of this year's election campaigns is the way they have increasingly been performed in churches, with church leaders being active players.

Well, Bertiers has got news for all politicians angling to be elected for the various positions, and their cheerleaders in church.

In one of the pieces on display, he has painted a church gathering in a very unflattering light.

The scene is that of a typical church, but it can also be a rowdy marketplace or a dingy barroom, as well as a campaign rally. Such is the detail in Bertier’s works.

The church wall has political party symbols pasted all over, as well as commercial adverts. The symbolism here is clear, the church has been politicised and commercialised.

And in a scene reminiscent of the Bible episode where some people lowered their sick relative from church rafters to be healed by Jesus, this time it is a donkey being lowered into a 'sick' chaotic church.

The viewer is being invited to interpret that particular scene, in the best way they know how.

But on the face of it, a donkey represents block-headedness and hypocrisy. So, from the artist's perspective, the church has been infiltrated by those vices and sadly, they are getting prioritised, just like the sick person got priority to be healed by Jesus.

Still, it should be borne in mind that the people who lowered the sick man into the synagogue used ingenuity and cunning to achieve their end.

Similarly, individuals holding the church captive have also gone to great lengths to get what they want, to the extent of being idolised in places of worship.

And yes, the faces of all your favourite politicians, no favouritism, are recognisable in the painting.

All political leaders and their church leader sidekicks should be dragged by the collar and be made to see the painting.

But would they mend their ways? The other painting packed full of layers of meaning is one depicting the Handshake.

You only need to see the painting unpeel the layers upon layers of heavy satire that the artist has used to lampoon the duo.

Bertier’s works, including metal sculptures, are currently on exhibition at the Alliance Française. It started on July 13 and is running till July 30. 

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