Kenya: there’s a new artist community forming in Kitengela

Zihan Kassam

Top Kenyan artists relocate to the savannah town of Kitengela, to live and create artwork in the raw beauty of nature.

Thirty kilometres south of Nairobi city centre is the growing suburb of Kitengela. As Nairobi’s population spills over, Kitengela transitions from a posse of cattle ranches to a growing town that is attracting property investors and home hunters in search of affordable land.

While the infrastructure in Kitengela is changing, the Greater Kitengela Area is still marked by open grass plains and acacia bush. Set adjacent to Nairobi National Park you can spot buffalo, antelope, giraffe and lion from your front step. But don’t worry; if you respect their space, they will respect yours. The same can be said about the artists of Kitengela.

Kitengela is home to a number of Kenyan artists, arguably the most successful. In fact, the small pocket in which they live is the first middle-class residential artist community to emerge in the country. The luminaries onsite include Chelenge Van Rampleberg, pioneer female sculptor in Kenya; Justus Kyalo, prominent Kenyan artist renowned for his abstract paintings; Jimnah Kimani, known for his paintings at Java Coffee Houses in Kenya; and James Muriuki, in and out of Kenya as he exhibits his photography locally and internationally. Add to that Paul Onditi, whose work is exhibited at the top Africa-focused contemporary art fairs today and, Syowia Kyambi, whose research-based artwork is impacting audiences across continents.

So why have these artists moved to the middle of nowhere, to a place where their dog is at risk of being eaten by leopard and their livestock tormented by hyena? Why the desire to be inaccessible, to be surrounded by only their artwork and acres of savannah grassland? Compelled by strong convictions, artists seem quite bizarre to the less creative folk, who can’t quite grapple with these double-dealers who are likely the life of the party one day and the ones who run the furthest away the next. It is not unusual for artists to oscillate between days of merrymaking, with other creative friends, and hiding far away in secret alcoves, ignoring all phone calls and knocks at the door. Do not judge an artist who pretends they are not at home. Obstruct a creative person when they are in production mode, and your bad manners don’t just make them grumpy, you will have potentially immobilized the production of great work that could have changed your mundane reality.

Surrounded by fellow artists in an area big enough to forget you have neighbours, life in Kitengela is a utopia for artists who want the best of both worlds: company and reprieve. And although artists might be perplexing characters, when we see results and witness their concepts manifest into riveting artwork, we quickly forgive them for their charming, duplicitous ways. A number of Kitengela artists exhibited at the Kichakani Exhibition June 24 and 25, 2017. Kichakani, which means ‘in the bush’, is the first of a series of exhibitions to come to the homes of Kitengela artists. The first get-together was hosted by Chelenge Van Rampleberg, at her modest, yellow home tucked in to the green of the valley. Van Rampelberg’s charming residence sits at the southern border of the park, at the cusp of the Kiserian ridge, a stone’s throw from Kitengela Hot Glass, which is a popular tourist landmark where recycled glass is used for interior design and craft.

The Kichakani exhibition comprised over thirty-five artworks including sculpture, painting, woodcut and photography. Contributing artists were Jimnah Kimani, James Muriuki, Tüms Yeshim, Nani Croze, Justus Kyalo, Moira Bushkimani, Chelenge Van Rampleberg, Syowia Kyambi and Neo Sinoxolo Musangi. The exhibition was an opportunity to see artwork in its own territory, in the place it was originally produced. Whether participating artists will find a common cultural or social denominator through this chain of exhibitions remains to be seen.

Assistant organizer Damaris Muga explained, “I think for me it is important that outside the galleries and commercial art spaces, that the artists can organize their own intimate shows that give people a glimpse of how the art will look in a home setting. Also, but to a smaller degree, the artists can take the power into their own hands; doing the all work themselves as opposed to where a gallery does all of the work.”

With its attractive red floor and white walls, Rampelberg’s living room was converted into the main exhibition space, where a few works of art stood out. Of the hostess’s repertoire of work, it is still Van Rampelberg’s sculpture, over her wood cuts prints and paintings, which draw you in. Continually bowing to their inherent beauty, she has a special understanding with the trees. A respected sculptor in Kenya, Chelenge Van Rampelberg grants her wood permission to say what it has to. She considers its natural curvature, the flow of the grain, following its lead and letting it guide her as she carves tall, amorphous figures. Van Rampelberg’s immortals pull you in and then spit you out. A subtle melancholy pierces through all of them. They are resilient and heartbroken characters who speak of love, motherhood and other latent but pure aspirations. Her figures are silent, knowing creatures with a tender song that is expressed through the contours of their bodies.

Chelenge Van Rampelberg’s sculpture “Beginning of Life” in palm wood, created in 2007, pulls you near. Larger than life, a pregnant woman embraces the life in her belly. She cherishes her unborn child. There is a sad, strong understanding in her eyes. Again, her body form complies with the wood grain as the sculptor embellishes nature’s story. Van Rampelberg always listens to the mantra of the tree. Exquisite in its own right, the unlikely beauty of her sculpture has you kneeling in admiration and yet uncomfortable at the same time. Her forms are all strange beasts, at first obscure and ambiguous, then resounding with murky but benevolent sensations that linger.

It is difficult to ignore the bright untitled abstract, oil on canvas, by Justus Kyalo. Kyalo’s textures, with their crude, organic feel, have an attractive rawness about them. Although consciously we may not know exactly what the wrinkles and folds of each painting are saying, they are in a fluent, coherent conversation with our subconscious minds. Kyalo’s use of block tones, lots of one solid colour, has a powerful impact. His untitled painting comprises two sandstone colour- wash squares, symbolic of land masses perhaps, separated by the strong yellow sunlight gushing above and between them. May be the parting of the two pieces symbolizes a departure from ordinary society. Perhaps it is the gorge between Kitengela and Nairobi. At his nearby studio, Kyalo harbours more abstract paintings, many with a horizontal line that separates the two halves. They appear to be influenced by the landscape of Kitengela; the open sky overhead and the unadulterated fields below.

In a far corner of the inside showroom is a compelling installation by Syowia Kyambi from a series produced in 2017 when the British Institute of Eastern Africa and Rwandan Arts Initiative organized a conference for artists in Kigali. I Don’t Speak Stomach arose from the discussions she had while there. Kyambi was attracted to the concrete covers that used a metal hook to close the drains. “There were these massive cracks and rifts in our discussions that paralleled the difficulty artists were facing with their contemporary position in relation to their history,” said Kyambi. “There was a tension around the visible and invisibility of language and acceptance of being a creative. There was also a desire for repair. A consistent undercurrent of not quite having gotten to a resolve, the tenacious hooks on the palm leaf reference the fight within and the breakage in the concrete, the delicacy of the nylon, the heaviness of the concrete inside of the nylon all allude to sensations that I experienced.”

Syowia Kyambi has been instrumental in introducing performance art and installation to a growing Kenyan audience. Her work explores contemporary human experience from cultural identity to deep emotional complexities and sexuality. Through a process of “examining, rejecting, accepting, inventing and constantly creating and re-creating,” Kyambi creates discussion around what were once taboo subjects in Africa.

The paintings and sculpture at Kichakani lured visitors in to the main space where they were completely taken aback by Neo Musangi’s captivating performance piece “The Day I Killed my Father was Exactly Like This.” Inspired by Alex Mawimbi’s (the artist formally known as Ato Malinda) “Mourning a Living Man”, Musangi described the work as “a poetry-performance; an exploration of the private as public through the body as a thing that remembers. In many ways the work presents self as self rather than a representation of anything else outside of itself.” Musangi, in character, sat at a table and prepared for revenge; wearing a white petticoat, a lady’s wig and overpowering make-up. An unsettling scene, Musangi’s unnamed character alternated between sharpening a knife against a stone and hacking at purple onions on a chopping board. The sound of sharpening and slicing filled the room. Breathing heavily, the crowd was entranced by the implacable, wounded soul, who went on to chop a dildo in to wedges before leaving the dressing table. A staggering experience, the audience was left paralyzed by the unanticipated, persuasive and painful presentation.

Those who were ruffled by Musangi’s performance on Saturday June 24th were soothed by the live coastal sounds of Kenyan musician Idd Aziz the next day. A variety of artwork drew in a sizeable crowd including collectors and new-born art enthusiasts. “I am delighted to be living in a community of creatives,” said Kyambi. “This exhibition was an opportunity to get together and share our work on the common ground of living in the same neighbourhood.”

Many of the artists who live in Kitengela have bought their homes with finances earned solely from the sale of artworks. Rupturing the stereotype of the drifter artist, Kenyan artists are authorities in their own right with more cause and effect than most regular nine-to-fivers. Whether it is through the local or international victories of Kenya-based artists, the thriving artist community in Kitengela is an indicator of success for Kenyan art as a whole.

Ultimately, there is a unique congregation of Kenyan artists, living in tasteful spaces where they produce a significant portion of their artwork onsite. They live within a small ring of Kitengela, which makes for a rare neighbourhood – the only one of its kind in the region. Rumour has it there are other high-status artists to join. Acclaimed Sudanese artist Eltayeb Dawelbait is moving in to the area and there are whispers of two more renowned artists, Peter Elungat and Peterson Kamwathi, moving in to the circle. Tired of Nairobi noise, these illustrious artists, incessantly sought after in the big city, have chosen a life away from the crowds; to concentrate on their practice, and to enjoy the silence and the serenity.

For those who have found tranquillity in kichakani, it a choice they enjoy, but for others, who are still hustling in the venomous city, have we lost our muses to the shrub and scrub beyond? Hardly; the truth is that, even though Kitengela feels like a far-away place, it is still within the greater Nairobi area and only just an hour away from Nairobi’s frantic nucleus.

August 24, 2017