Kenya’s Chinese takeaway in Venice

Thursday June 13 2013

To the Right and right, Stop Dancing, Restart Dancing both by Justus Kyalo. Photos/Frank Whalley

Kenya, you will be delighted to learn, is making a brave showing at the prestigious Venice Biennale.

The country is represented by no fewer than 10 artists, headed by the wonderfully original though much copied Kivuthi Mbuno. Then there are Chrispus Wachira, one Italian from Malindi called Armando Tanzini and eight Chinese.

I’ll just go through that last bit again in case you thought you were not reading it correctly. Eight Chinese.

They are Fan Bo, Luo Ling, Liu Ke, Lu Peng, Li Wei, He Weiming, Chen Wenling and Feng Zhenghe…

Names that surely trip off the tongue of all lovers of Kenyan art.

As a guest in this country, I have more reason than most to feel that nationality should not matter. But hang on. In this case it is fundamental.


The Biennale is held to showcase the works of the finest artists of different countries. Each country is given its own pavilion and it is reasonable to assume that a visitor going into the Kenyan one might expect to find works by Kenyans. Not Chinese.

No matter. Life has a way of sorting itself out and I have no doubt that anyone wandering into the Chinese Pavilion will be delighted to find major works by those popular Beijing Boys Peterson Kamwathi, Michael Soi and Ehoodi Kichapi. Or not.

Perhaps the commissioner and curators of this strange show (all Italians, by the way) could let us know how such a bizarre state of affairs came about. Maybe Kenya’s new Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Sport and Many Other Important Things would care to hazard an opinion. Surely it could have nothing to do with persuasive words like “sponsorship.” Could it?

Moving swiftly from La-La Land and back into the real world, the genuine Kenyan Justus Kyalo (presumably Cha Lo in Venice) is having a retrospective exhibition at the Red Hill Art Gallery, off Limuru Road near The Retreat.

There are hung some 40 works from 1993-2013 and, my, what a revelation.

It becomes possible to track Kyalo’s development from a promising but unexciting figurative painter to his current, marvellous abstract works.

The Red Hill is a small and immaculate gallery, perhaps unsuited to showing his larger paintings — at least enough of them to enable a comprehensive look at the man’s career — but those that are on show are intimate and dynamic, involving and a delight.

What I found particularly interesting was the way his sense of place — his African-ness, if you like — shone through in even the most abstract of his works. And also the manner in which the latest paintings in the show, Masiara 1 and Masiara 2, (Kiswahili for problems) completed only last year, offer sufficient figurative references to flatter even the most casual viewer into a thorough understanding of Kyalo’s talent for pinning elusive moments and places to the wall.

For just as it is true that figurative art is an abstraction of the reality an artist perceives, the converse also holds — that all abstract art contains elements of the figurative. We know this to some extent from colour references but also from the faces we see in clouds and the figures dancing in the fire.

Thus the oblique reference to a doorway — rather, the portal, through which might be found the solution to the artist’s masiara — presents its architectural proportions with minimum fuss while being quite specific to its place…. the portal and its shadow really could not be from any other place but the East African coast.

Among the earliest and most figurative paintings in this show is To the Right, a study of two seated women. Their bared arms and legs show how well Kyalo can draw, with a supple, sensuous line, and he does his best to breathe life into a traditional subject, the loosely clothed female body. Yet for me, and also the artist I suspect, it remains unsatisfactory. The rest of the figures do not quite match this insight and apart from the necklines seem to lock up, stylised and stiff.

Freedom in abstraction

I think Kyalo realised this and moved slowly, in a considered exploration of the figure’s possibilities, to the welcoming freedom he found in abstraction. He could offer his subjects so much more; and most importantly much more to himself.

This is shown clearly in the chronological midpoint of the exhibition, the pivotal Stop Dancing, Restart Dancing of 2002. Here his dancer twists, turns, shrugs and flings out his arms in a blurring whirl of excitement and expressionist passion. Yet for all its apparent abstraction it remains a small masterpiece of figurative painting.

By then there was no return. The patterns of light on the sea, the dance of sunshine on the lake, the interlocking rhythms of trees and meadows, even the eponymous, rectangular thrust in Bed Rest … it is all there and it shows why Kyalo is now recognised as East Africa’s leading abstract artist.

Should he ever tire of painting, a career awaits him as a writer, for he states his concerns with a clarity infused by poetic spirit:
“Painting is a search, every canvas a beginning; a search every single day for a perfect painting, a perfect solution to life, a perfect dance.”

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a Chinese fine arts and media company based in Nairobi. Or not. Email: [email protected].