Kenyan artist Kamau Kariuki has carved a niche for himself with his uncommon creative style. He is known for his realistic black and white portraits which, at first glance, look like pointillism. Pointillism paintings consist of tiny coloured dots that blend together to form an image.
“It’s hyperrealism broken down to a constructivism art style where the painting becomes functional,” says Kariuki of his artwork. What he actually paints are the pixels, the smallest element in a photograph, and mostly in black and white. “That’s why every dot can relate to the other,” Kariuki explains. On closer inspection of his acrylics on canvas you can see the tiny, irregular shapes that form the picture.
He also incorporates an impasto technique that give the image a three-dimensional look. It’s a methodology that Kariuki, a self-taught artist, has developed after much experimentation. His father was an artist and guided his process when he was younger.
Kariuki rarely takes on commissioned work because he would rather create what he feels and he selects subjects from photographs based on what they portray. His portraits show full faces or partial close-ups, with amazing incorporation of detail. They are also very expressive because you sense the mood of the subject. Some have a bold look, others seemed wracked with emotion. In his artist profile, Kariuki writes, “My aim is to celebrate human life… the impressions people leave on the world.’’
His work is also notable for integration of light and shadows. I particularly liked his non-portrait illustrations because they get embedded in my memory, which is how he describes the uniqueness of his art.
The painting Reminisce has a man on a rainy day sitting with an umbrella on a bench, one foot casually over his knee. A soft light envelopes the scene and the monochromatic image has a yellowish tinge to it. “Turmeric is used to give the paintings a historical look,” explains Kariuki.
In the drawing Crossing Today, where a man is walking into what looks like a liquid wall, Kariuki also incorporates the sepia colours but with more intensity, thereby creating a twilight effect. There is a transcendent quality to this illustration that calls on viewers to suspend their belief for a moment.
Some of Kariuki’s portraits are on display at the Nairobi National Museum. More of his work can be viewed on his website.