Theo Stone: Home at last

Most people are traumatized if they are forced to leave their homes once in a lifetime; in Theo Stone’s case, there have been several forced departures.

Although her ancestors were Greek, she has never been to Greece. Born in Uganda, she had to leave after Idi Amin came to power. Her father Theodore Spyropoulos had gone to Uganda at the age of 23 to prospect for minerals in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; he was successful. In 1971 Idi Amin expelled most of the unwanted foreigners from Uganda, but Spyropoulos remained to continue mining until ill health forced him to relocate to Nairobi in 1979. Theo and her husband had already moved to Kenya in 1972; in 1998, she moved to Kitengela where she continues to live.

Theo had lived in Kenya when she was at boarding school in Eldoret, after which she went to the Wimbledon School of Art in London where she earned the necessary credentials. But Africa was to remain her home and her inspiration.

During her time in Kenya, Theo has exhibited her work eight times, but she remains reticent. Like many artists, she complains that the business of setting up exhibitions (especially solo shows) is not only costly but time-consuming as well; her purpose in life is just to get on with her art.

People like Theo Stone are caught in a contradiction: they can’t earn enough to survive without exhibiting, but they can’t afford a secretary and a publicist to do what is necessary to put on a show. But this time around, Theo was lucky: after a decade of silence, her work, and Nairobi’s Fairview Hotel, an excellent venue for an exhibition, happily gave her a space.

Although Theo usually works very much in isolation – it’s what suits her best – she is enthusiastic about the change in the Nairobi art scene over the past decade. “There has been a lot of encouragement as a result of which there are now different ideas, different concepts,” she said.

She has been part of that change, working with single mothers who are HIV-positive, sharing her skills and knowledge and introducing them to new ways of making a living. Some of the resulting handiwork, like the Maasai beading on several of the pieces in her show, was done by these women. And their children have been occupied during the holidays making butterfly cards that Theo promotes and sells.

Her enthusiasm is infectious and is evident in the wide variety of techniques and styles she uses, in her keen eye and her sense of humour. Her subjects are mostly related to nature in one form or another. Her passion since childhood has been plants, birds, underwater creatures and insects. “My theme is conservation, and I live the way I believe.”

She has only recently succumbed to the luxury of electricity. Many of the objects in the show were “found”: recycled wine bottles and baby food tins covered with the finest beading that turns them instantly into objects d’art.

But there was work on a grand scale, too; for me, the most imposing was the painting of Maasai women – towering figures with oval-shaped heads painted from behind with the pleasing contours of curved cow horns providing a contrast to the tall vertical forms in the foreground. Theo gives the whole thing an elemental quality by covering it in a thin layer of white like a patina of dust that makes it seem timeless (it is actually with paint flicked onto the canvas with a toothbrush, but never mind! Artists are entitled to their secrets.)

The image is familiar but yet unlike any painting of Maasai you have ever seen and as far as you can imagine from the stereotypical stick-like figures you see everywhere. That is one of the advantages of working in isolation.

Theo’s work has taken her to many places – airports, bathrooms, swimming pools, private dining rooms – where her murals are very much in demand. An accomplished ceramicist, she has decorated lamps with necklaces, shells and beads as though they were human figures. “I like playing with textures,” she said, standing beside the solemn Gabbra Woman, a mixed-media piece on handmade paper. Swathed in lush materials that bring out the classic beauty of the features, the face looks down in modesty.

There is no attempt at realism; in fact none of Theo’s work could be called realistic.  In the woman’s very submissiveness there is a kind of erotic splendor. It is there as well in the colour of the flowers, their rich reds and yellows that draw the viewer to them. Who among us wants to inhabit a world of grey concrete and straight lines, you can’t help asking yourself? In Nairobi, we are witnessing the systematic destruction of nature, and interesting old building are being replaced by solid square blocks that offend the eye. Theo’s work is a welcome respite from that.

Yet the style of Gabbra Woman is very different from what Theo calls her period of “bacteria” painting in which she tended to concentrate on highly intricate representations of reptiles, beetles and moths discovered in Kitengela. “I don’t kill them,” she hastened to add. “It’s just what I find.”

She makes them appear exquisite; the gold-beaded scorpion or the multitude of chameleons and lizards that crawl all over lampshades, gourds, and large painted eggs in driftwood holders.

Entirely self-taught, Theo insists that artists have to change and develop as their sense of themselves grows. “The language of the soul is the arts,” she declared. “Without us there is not soul. We bring people together.”

Behind her is a collage of Maasai necklaces forming concentric blue circles on a dark pink cloth background. All around is a riot of colour, design, texture and form. A small woman of great vitality, Theo she seems almost dwarfed by her own energy and creativity.

And as a Greek, she is drawn to the sea, which was represented in this show by three small watercolours whose luminous quality evokes the rich underwater world of the Indian Ocean with its turtles, brightly hued fish and sparkling clarity.

Birds are a constant presence: the delicate long golden legs of white stroke, the peering eyes of an owl and the extravagant pink feathers of a flamingo preening itself and luxuriating in its own splendor. Elsewhere, the birds are so delicate; they are reminiscent of Chinese painting on silk. Certainly you can see a large number of influences at work. I look forward to next year’s show, and perhaps more in between.

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Credits:
Title: Theo Stone: Home at last
Publication: MSANII (The magazine for the arts from Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art – RaMoMA) – Issue 22  – page 8-9
Date: January – March 2008
Writer: Betty Caplan | Location: Nairobi, Kenya

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