Untangling the Past Through Art

Visceral, honest and rife with historical significance, Kaloki Nyamai produces work which asks questions just as much as it answers them. Working in richly layered multi-media – specifically canvas, metal, boards and video installations – the Kenyan-born artist explores the parallels between past and present. Nyamai’s creative process is a lengthy and emotional one which is mirrored in the experience of viewing his work -there is a magnificent exchange which takes place between artist and viewer.

Kaloki Nyamai, who resides and creates his work in Kenya, attended the Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts in Nairobi. Despite the fact that the artist has only been making art for eight years, his work hangs in numerous collections across the globe where it continues to draw viewers in, immediately arousing the feeling that there is far more than what meets the eye. Most recently, Nyamai took part in the third edition of the Kampala Biennale,in August 2018. His work has also been shown at the AKAA Art Fair in Paris and at Ebony Curated Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa.

Although African art, much like the continent itself, holds much diversity, there are some unifying artistic themes that recur. Kenyan art has changed much in the post-colonial years, yet it in no way leaves behind its history. In many aspects of his work, Nyamai looks back in order to go forward. Drawing heavily on traditional tales narrated to him by his grandmother, the artist explores his own Akamba roots. He explores how history and identity are fundamentally intertwined and the way in which they inform the identities of people living in present day, post-colonial Kenya. The stories recounted to Nyamai were those of oppression, entrapment, his roots and Kamba traditions. Drawing on these stories, as well as his own research, the artist uses this ammunition to create bold yet sensitive artworks which leave viewers both in awe and a little perturbed. Although much of his work draws on the untangling of uneasy stories of identity and cultural history, many of which are his own, at the core of his work remains one fundamental concept -what it means to be black in white spaces. This struggle is reflected in the very construction of his artwork -textured surfaces are heavily applied with paint that becomes scarred and cracked as it begins to dry. These days the artist exclusively titles his work in Kikamba, something he perceives as vital if his work is to remain relevant to the local audience. According to Nyamai, the use of his native language reinforces the importance of interpretation and perception in his paintings -his works begin to reveal themselves while simultaneously offering the potential for new interpretation through the eyes of each viewer. A few years ago, Nyamai dropped the use of his first name, Dickson. The decision to do so directly correlates with his burning desire to investigate and understand identity. “That’s when I transitioned from reflection on the space, to be a person placed within a historical continuum,” he explains.

Many of Nyamai’s works feature the human form in some way or another. Due to the fact that what ends up on canvas is more the outline of a body in silhouette form with little to no detail of facial expressions, viewers are left with many unanswered questions: How did this person get here and where are they going? Are they happy, dejected or angry? As a mixed-media artist, Nyamai pairs emotional ammunition with various instruments, including canvas, sisal and charcoal, to produce a works of art so captivating that audiences not only consider what he is trying to say, but the reaction they themselves are having to the art.

In his latest body of work which premiered in January at the Circle Art Gallery in Kenya, titled **Mwaki Ginya Evinda Engi**, meaning **The Fire Next Time**, Nyamai invited viewers to reconsider the conditions of the present state of our humanity. The body of work, portrayed through painting and performative installations, is an investigation into what occurs when fire is a form of familial erasure. “When you look at the work, you will see writing like ‘black rock is not black’, or ‘call me on the public hanging’. These words are words said by the people. For me, introducing text in the work is very important,” explains Khanyisile Mbongwa, curator of the exhibition. “Words are very strong, and they have their own personality.”

“**Mwaki Nginya Evinda Enge** is a collection that furthers my investigation on the tensions between history and our identities. I take a deeper look at what recollection after tragedy looks like post colonization and post-independence,” explains Nyamai. These works, much like his grandmother’s stories, intend to question the social constructs that have been forcibly woven into the structure of Kenyan society. “When I say ‘I am not my father,’ it is because my struggle is different from his.” The artist acknowledges the difference in lived experiences between generations. “Race, upbringing, social set up and politics all play a part in the cycle of carefully planned events you are born into, in which you had no control. In some ways it is the most subtle form of slavery -it demands submission and it is subtle,” Nyamai notes. In direct opposition to this, he explains what needs to be done in order to eradicate this mentality of submission. “Interrogation requires time, effort, realization of wrongs and what needs to be rectified. We have learned to adapt, to live in these boxes because even if we were to ask questions, what questions would we ask?”

One look at Kaloki Nyamai’s artwork will tell you that his creations -striking, emotive and complex -are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Using lived experiences as stimuli, Nyamai concentrates his attention on actively questioning the very core of his own identity. Kaloki Nyamai’s work arouses feelings of precariousness and heartache, of intrigue and liberation. It is a beautiful yet terrifying thing to try and understand the things that shape us. But when this is done through art such as this, it errs on the side of beautiful.

Images: Kaloki Nyamai

Leave a Reply