Meditations on Lemek Tompoika’s Human
When I was in high school, I read a novel that described The Vitruvian Man as ‘the most anatomically perfect man’. For some reason I found the idea of such perfection striking and never forgot the description. The Vitruvian Man (circa 1490) is a pen and ink on paper drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and, as stated in the text surrounding it, was made as a study of the proportions of the human body as described by Vitruvius, a first century Roman architect. Leonardo’s drawing shows two superimposed images of the same man fitted into a circle and a square, with his arms and legs apart in one pose, and arms apart but legs together in the other. The illustration, which was most likely for the artist’s edification, was discovered in one of his personal notebooks after his death. The Vitruvian Man with the text bordering it revealed Leonardo’s fascination with the mathematical exploration of the human proportion as evidence of the theory that man is a miniature copy of the universe.
The Kenyan artist, Lemek Tompoika, is also fascinated by the human form. Using the human figure, his works explore humanity and serve as a commentary on the state of the society. His charcoal on paper drawings are simple linear renditions of the human form. In the background of these works, he utilizes newspaper clippings to further illustrate his point. But in a new series of drawings, Tompoika is keeping it simple. Dispensing with the clippings, he allows the figure alone embody his message.
Human is one of the works in this series. In Human, Tompoika depicts physical androgyny in the human figure. It’s a clean, simple contour drawing with areas of contrast hatched with lines going in different directions. The stark background makes the monochromatic figure more forceful than the figures in the artist’s earlier works. Tompoika’s drawing reflects a delicate interweaving of the masculine and the feminine features of the androgynous figure.
Androgyny, derived from the ancient Greek words ‘andr’ meaning man and ‘gyne’ meaning woman, is the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics. Myths about the beginning of human often refer to the androgynous character of the creature and its subsequent division into complementary halves. An interesting one in Plato’s Symposium is the myth of Aristophanes where it is told that humans used to be spherical creatures with two bodies attached back to back. Because these spherical human where unruly and threatened to take over the heavens, Zeus cut them into halves as punishment for their rebellion. Consequently, humans became incomplete beings and were condemned to long for their other half to feel whole again. Such legends continue to promote the idea of androgyny as humans’ original and perfect state.
This idea is not restricted to creation stories. Within most religion, the goal of the meditative traditions is the unifying in oneself the supposed male capacity to be rational and the supposed female capacity to be intuitive to attain the ideal of psychological androgyny—true male-female mental balance. Purportedly, this harmony is the key to enlightenment. In this drawing, Human reflects the physical manifestation of this harmony. It portrays the indivisibility and wholeness of the unified traits of the enlightened being.
To underscore the fact that it embodies an ideal state, Tompoika’s Human is beautiful. In a room filled with colourful paintings, its simplicity is arresting and emotive and exquisite (this image here does not do it justice). While Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man might be the anatomically perfect man, Lemek Tompoika’s Human represents the perfection of the enlightened human.