Kaloki Nyamai is a Kenyan artist who constantly uses his work to explore parallels between the past and the present. Nyamai's latest body of work, Mwaki Ginya Evinda Engi, was incited by the intimate relationship between colonial violence and independence. Mwaki Ginya Evinda Engi explores what happens when fire is a form of familial erasure. Nyamai takes the audience on a journey, through painting and performative installations, in which the individual is asked: How do we imagine ourselves when precariousness defines our lived experience? This body of work examines reparations through recollections of tragedy and uses particular visual modalities to suggest healing, unification and preparation for a new start.

In Mwaki Ginya Evinda Engi, Nyamai is asking us to look again at the conditions of our humanity. The exhibition is curated by Enos Nyamor and hosted by Art Africa. It will be running until the 25th of January at the Circle Art Gallery, 910 James Gichuru Road, Lavington Nairobi, Kenya. 

 

Two Vala Twambeiye (We Are Back Where We Started From), 2018.
Mixed media on canvas.

 

Born in 1985, Kaloki Nyamai has been making art for only 8 years, and yet within that short period of time his work has been exhibited extensively and hangs in numerous significant collections. His painting practice entwines material investigation ( canvas, sisal, charcoal amongst others) with a wide-reaching exploration of subject matter. Nyamai draws on uneasy stories of identity, environment and memory, and in doing so offers fragments to be pieced together slowly. The lengthy, searching process employed in the making of the works is mirrored in the experience of viewing them. 

With a burning interest in identity, the artist dropped the use of his first name, Dickson. “I have been interested with identity from 2013,” he says. “That’s when I transitioned from reflection on the space, to be a person placed within a historical continuum. 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.”

Nyamai has since been interested in making his work more culturally aligned with his Akamba roots. He is curious about his ancestry, and, these days Nyamai exclusively titles his work in Kikamba. This may present the impression of excluding those with limited or no understanding of Kikamba, but he finds it necessary, especially in making the work relevant to the local audience. 

Atoi Mena Kimeina (Neighborhood Wrangles), 2018.
Mixed media on canvas.

 

The imagery of urban architectural forms recurs throughout his practice. Nyamai considers the symbiotic relationship between structures and the people who build and live with and in them. Screens also appear frequently, sometimes containing human forms, symbolising the tension between us as individuals, and the roles offered to us as citizens, consumers and subjects. This idea of being held in balance is something the artist continually considers, both in formal and in concept. The artist has researched his own family lineage, including interviews with his grandmother whose stories bridge generations, Kamba and Christian traditions and culture. He found her stories to be full of contradictions between perceptions of cultural roots and historical narratives, the influence of colonisation and on how this plays out in current day occurrences.

The artist describes how important storytelling is to the passing on of African history – in many of his paintings, he imagines these stories as boxes within which we impose the social, cultural, economic and political positions on ourselves. Nymai's interest in the power of storytelling and the flexibility of meaning is again reflected in the titles of his works, the use of the Kamba language reinforces the importance of interpretation and perception in his paintings. His visual language is layered and implicit, allowing the works to reveal themselves gradually and offering the potential for new interpretation through each viewers translation. 
 


*Extracts from text by Enos Nyamor.