Kenyan painter Kaloki Nyamai takes inspiration from quotidian life in Nairobi, the capital city where he was raised and is now based. Nyamai views his artistic practice as a continuation of his ancestral lineage of storytelling. He often draws upon his grandmother’s stories of the Kamba people, a Bantu ethnic group of eastern Kenya. Constructing complex visual and physical depth within each composition, the artist proposes a powerful alternative to the flatness of singular narratives of Kenyan history and identity presented as the definitive postcolonial account. He likens the formal act of stitching to symbolically unifying a wounded or fractured community. By depicting the vulnerability of the Kenyan people, Nyamai calls attention to their humanity.
A persistent sense of togetherness emanates throughout his oeuvre, both physically and figuratively. Nyamai often depicts his subjects in mid-action – dancing, embracing, swimming, interlocking hands, and eating. He applies paint in thick swathes on primed unstretched canvas, overlaying archival photographic images of African-Americans from the 1920s to the 50s, newspaper coverage of post-election violence in Kenya, and family portraits, emphasizing certain details and shrouding others.
The artist’s richly textured surfaces entangle us in the space between history and memory. Nyamai’s paintings foreground abstracted figures in vivid shades of color; emerging from layers of acrylic paint, sisal rope, photo transfers, and burnt rubber yarn. Their treatments are varied–some works are framed while others are suspended or hung un-stretched. The fragmented state of these compositions situates the viewer in the present, offering up a collection of moments that must be pieced together slowly by the eye. His paintings capture the struggle of translating recollection and lived experience into physical form.
Kaloki Nyamai (b. 1985, Kitui, Kenya) pursued formal training at the BiFa Institute of Fine Arts in Nairobi, Kenya. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions at numerous international venues including; Galerie Barbara Thumm in Berlin, Germany, Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana, Septieme Gallery, Paris, France, Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya, EBONY/CURATED, Cape Town, South Africa, Kuona Trust Art Centre, Nairobi, Kenya and Oriel Plas Glyn Y Weddw Gallery, Wales, UK. His work is in the public collection of the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas and SAFFCA (Southern African Foundation for Contemporary Art), Brussels, Belgium.
Nyamai was one of four artists included in the Kenyan Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale (2022), Venice, Italy. He has also participated in the Kampala Art Biennale (2018), Kampala, Uganda, Stellenbosch Triennale (2020), South Africa, Dakar Biennale (2022), Dakar, Senegal. Recent presentations include Dining in Chaos (2023), a monumental triptych of unstretched canvases depicting figures in times of global crisis which debuted at Art Basel Unlimited, Basel, Switzerland in 2023.
In July 2023, Nyamai launched Kamene Art Residency, a program designed to foster artistic growth and cross-cultural collaboration in the heart of Nairobi. He will be the subject of a solo exhibition at James Cohan, New York in March 2024.