History Full of Traitors: Preview to Upcoming Untitled Show
By Enos Nyamor
When I first encountered Kaloki Nyamai’s work – he was then based at the GoDown Arts Center, Nairobi – I was not only captured by the agency in his social commentary, but also by how his visual language, sprinkled with traces of expressionism, radiated an apocalyptic swing. It was 2013 and he was embarking on his artistic career.
By visual language, I am not merely referring to the organization of shapes and color tones. Rather, this is a speculation on the exchange between the viewer and the works, both in the process of decoding objects and applying memory. This random interaction generates vocabularies, by making one feel, and this congeals into a language. Here, the language is charged, and which is a notion denoting the effect imposed by a mixture of natural or organic elements introduced to an artifact, or even a painting.
Some of the organic elements in Kaloki Nyamai’s work include sisal and, in case of his earlier oeuvre, the use of charcoal. In retrospection, it is these unusual or new materials that accords his work the “charge.” Here, the experimentation with active compounds, which exist in our three-dimensional reality, can stimulate a reaction. And so, while serving as symbols, these motifs garnish a piece of art, forging a relationship with the viewer.
And, just as his visual language is visceral, it is also serious. What remains certain is that his language is serious because of the constant desire to radically shape and influence emotions, and which can thrust viewers into a series of mood swings. But it is also because his language, as a vehicle of tragedy, demonstrates that, in spite of the pain and failures, there is a room for improvement. Perhaps, through his work, owing to their seriousness, a viewer can develop an awareness of the complex, universal human experience. For memories of good times can fade easily fade away, but hard times can dominate every corner of human thoughts and emotions. And tragedy is an overbearing human condition, and those artists abundantly gifted with this sensibility – the capacity to filter human experience through a fine lens of loss and reinvention – can command emotions and thoughts, and often long after the initial encounter with their creations.
Even so, an examination of some of his paintings, specifically through his current oeuvre as well as his past series, unfolds tragedy in three layers, in terms of race, gender, and cultural identity. “I have always been interested with the fact of being a person of a specific gender within a particular space,” he had told me during an interview, at his studio in Dagoretti, at the edges of Nairobi’s Ngong’ forest.
Influence of Space
Among the most striking features in his earlier series, was the way in which he captured and frozen the edifice of slum life. The “slum-scape,” as he refers to them, portrayed compositional setting what directed the viewer to an underlying chaos and a suggestion of an inevitable end, of an apocalypse. These paintings were charged and often painted with charcoal repurposed from scorched houses in Mukuru Kayaba slum.
From the center of Nairobi’s Industrial area, and if one can afford an aerial view, Mukuru Kayaba is a patch of iron-sheet structures, situated towards the north, and crisscrossed by a railway line and a murky river. It is an informal settlement that, even today, lacks basic sanitation services. But it was through Kaloki’s paintings that one could have an insider view, could reap from the benefits of reflections by a brutally honest visual commentator.
And the compositional settings he depicted are dominated by swaths of shadows and lined with a monotonous background of lurid color, mainly variations of red and yellow. It is the strategy of organizing the elements and radically distorting the setting that hurled Kaloki to the limelight. Somehow, the charcoal finishing in his work evoked a tinted reality, as if one is forced to stare at the agony of disillusionment, at people who have hit the rock-bottom.
While Kaloki’s earlier paintings reflected on the tragic dynamism in Mukuru Kayaba, and so inspired by slums, he subsequently drifted towards juxtaposing lifestyle between affluent and low-income settlements. His earlier slum-scapes were a form of documentation, as well as the preservation of the memory of particular sites that were undergoing constant change. The informal structures represent fragments of life for those who lived there, and any change, whether necessary or not, is an erasure. Fire accidents are regular in most slums, and every conflagration brings a hint of scorch-earth policies, as a way of landlords evicting stubborn tenants.
The drift in the subject matter, from simply environmental awareness to one’s identity, although had been gestation for long, ostensibly transitioned after his 2014 exhibition “The Stranger in Me,” in which he explored the essence of weaving between slums and posh urban zones. “The more you learn, the more you begin to confine yourself to a corner,” he had told me. “It is just so sad.”
About three years ago, Kaloki Nyamai dropped the use of his first, given name, Dickson. “I have been interested with identity from 2013,” he said. “That’s when I transitioned from reflection on the space, to be a person placed within a historical continuum. And my exhibition in Nairobi has been a work in process. I have always explored multiple notions, and some of the works I will showcase capture enduring issues on identity that does not fit popular narratives like, for example, migration.”
He has since been interested in making his work culturally significant and also in touch with his Akamba roots. He has been curious about his ancestry, and, in the process, each layer of discovery thrusts his expression into a new paradigm. For example, these days Kaloki exclusively titles his work in Kikamba. Although such an approach can appear as hermetic, shutting out those with limited or no understanding of Kikamba, it is also necessary, especially in making the work relevant to the local audience. The wave to satisfy a global art market have always compelled artists to not only align concepts with trends in the global north, but also focus on commercial guidelines, and which can be insincere.
While the contextual language might require interpretation, and through which pieces of meaning may be lost, the intention is solidly embedded in the visual organization of components and can speak to a diverse audience. In this instance, expressing the work’s title in a native dialect, in itself, is enough to engage beyond the typical art audience that constantly consists of critics, cultural producers, and diplomats.
In respect, it is important to acknowledge the artist’s transformation from a landscape artist to one whose work problematize identity and historical legacy of colonialism. The shift from compositional settings to an improvised canvas populated with almost surreal objects highlights Kaloki’s transformation. In early 2018, Nyamai Kaloki showcased at the Ebony Gallery in Cape Town, in an exhibition titled “I am Not My Father.” The show was a salient statement and captured the widespread attitude among millennials, across the African continent, on failures of the senior generations in the decolonization and deconstruction process, and, especially in tolerating imperial invaders and, later on, in perpetuating. “History is full of traitors,” he said.
Of course, the transformation in Kaloki Nyamai’s visual language demonstrates an evolution in his artistic process. As a mixed media artist, firstly, the shift has been through the improvisation with various materials. While maintaining the monochromatic essence, the artist works with layers of dust and cow dung, all mixed together with acrylic. Additional materials include strings, sisal ropes, and image transfer (with emphasis on images from pre-colonial and colonial era).
Another recurring object is the cow-head, specifically because the cow was, and still is, the main symbol of wealth among many African societies. The combination of all these motifs, become the charged elements and lend many of Kaloki’s work universal relevance. Each element is an association of abstract concepts, and almost appears chaotic. But, through these components, Kaloki is also challenging traditions of fine arts, exploring with materials, and also resisting capitalism.
“I recently discovered the importance of sisal in pre-colonial societies. Nothing could be done without sisal ropes. It was a like a currency,” he said. “In that distant past, there were no complaints of environmental degradation.”
There are topics that Kaloki Nyamai has investigated in multiple forms, and then there are those that almost appear at the periphery. Reference to urbanization, inequality, and decolonization are constant, but it is gender relations that have almost appeared as less prominent. Perhaps, more and more subjects in his works will take the feminine form. Men and children, who are androgynously depicted, have become central in his oeuvre, and this is a tendency he hopes to transcend.
But Kaloki, as an artist who is reflecting on our times, on the current epoch, is aware of the significance of gender activism today, given the imbalance generated, for instance, by a systematic oppression of women through violence. On the one hand, gender equality is inevitable. On another, there is perennial threat of disorder, invading and altering the core of gender relations, and which is the family institution. While gender equality is necessary, pitching men against women, in undertones of a “gender war,” is what Kaloki finds revolting. “Amidst the equality narrative, I find the obsession with affirmative action, of handing women special powers, to be a means of fighting women.”
Even so, discussions of gender equality, as propagated in the mass platforms, often begin and end with women rights. Yet gender equality is a universal issue and emanates from a pattern of social constructs and constant conditioning. “Some notions on gender are outrageous.” Kaloki said. “For example, men are expected to be unemotional, or that men are not supposed to cook. It is as if they have to adopt strange or foreign personalities. This is how a person begins fighting oneself.”
Discussing Kaloki’s works within the lines of its connection to identity will be incomplete, if one does not mention the changes of his language from one that focuses on space, to a complex convergence of identity and space. Here, it is important to identify the distinction between concepts captured and the overarching reality, for some unpopular ideas cannot be readily inserted into some conversations.
Because some of his creations are even cryptic, they might require additional mediation. The first element of the process is to discover the rawness of his aesthetic. As an artist who can work with multiple forms of visual arts, including a series of performances and an installation, his capacity to pierce into emotions is indelible. Secondly, additional mediation is necessary when exploring the artist’s intention, especially in documenting changes with every item of rediscovery. Since embarking on the identity search, and which has, in part, consummated into the current exhibition, Kaloki has become critical of education systems, specifically in Kenya, in the first fifty years of independence.
“The education system in post-colonial Kenya begins with independence struggles, often make an impression that Africans, in general, were from a dark an uncertain past, and which leads to a dependency complex. For example, history classes exclude some of precolonial, colonial, and post-colonial era legacies,” Kaloki said. “The result is that the outlook shifts towards the West as perfect societies.”
Given that Kaloki has been practicing as a professional artist for only eight years, and that the richness of his imagery is intense, it is fitting to bridge notions of authenticity in his visual language, thematic variations, and stylistic transition. These become important components for the part of the public that, because of immobility or inaccessibility, is unexposed to his work. Owing to the depth of representation in his imagery, one can be certain of meaningful response from viewers. All complex issues addressed by Kaloki, both conceptually and ambiguously, should be included in every narratives. For Kaloki’s work does not intend to impress, but to transform and educate, and such discussions are necessary, today, right now, in the era of Afro-Renaissance.