Cut, stripped, painted, kicked and sewn.
Nairobi-based painter Kaloki Nyamai’s canvases are best described as constructions of time and memory. Color is just one dimension that creates a narrative. Nyamai adds layers of paper, stock photos, and rubber threads to deepen the dialogue.
From the physicality of these surfaces, Nyamai paints with mysterious vulnerability the intimacy of our spirit selves and future selves, misremembered and reinvented.
Moments I Wished I Had, which opened September 10 at Gallery Keijsers Koning in Dallas, is Nyamai’s first solo show in the United States. The 35-year-old artist and father of two has had an explosive year. His work is currently being shown in the Kenya Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, the art world’s most prestigious exhibition. His Untitled (worker) 2022 was one of 10 works acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art at the Dallas Art Fair earlier this year.
With shows on three continents, a growing base of black collectors in Los Angeles, and more in Dallas, Nyamai has been energized by the response to his work: “It’s that silent support thing where you’re told, ‘We’re in you . They’ll never fall when we’re here.’ And it was so overwhelming that I almost burst into tears because they felt the connection.”
Though deeply personal, Nyamai’s paintings are able to embody a seemingly universal connection to personal memory and collective history. His dynamic and time-consuming process of preparing a canvas symbolizes how layers of information, stories and images emerge to shape our understanding of ourselves and our world.
Nyamai described his trial in very down-to-earth terms on a recent WhatsApp call. “It’s like you go out on the street and you see posters on the street and then you see a poster from last year,” the artist said. “One more poster on top of the other, one more on top of each other. You can say. “Oh, the thing has been [pasted] over a period of time.’”
Nyamai recreates this weathering effect by distressing the work—even going so far as to step on his canvases. A process that initially made gallery owner Bart Keijsers Koning anxious. But Nyamai assured him that whatever falls down during the process must fall off; Anything left over becomes an integral part of the creative record.
The story moves like a treadmill across each painting, in haunting, gray backgrounds collaged with archival, newspaper, and personal photographs. Only then do figures appear, torn out of the flow of time and placed in the foreground in the colors yellow, turquoise, pepto pink and Prussian blue.
Six of the seven works in the exhibition unfold conjunctive memories, memories that the artist hoped would have been true in his lifetime: a young boy looking at a scene of tenderness and affection, a couple holding hands while posing for a photograph, a father – possibly the artist’s – holding his son on his back, a mother holding a young child while a father turns and leaves. (For a run? Forever?)
The way Nyamai reconfigures the canvas and abstracts the human form sets him apart from many black diaspora artists who also focus on painting the body. It’s one of the reasons Keijsers Koning is so excited to introduce Nyamai’s work to US audiences.
“Where the figurative work ends, this kind of painting begins,” says Keijsers Koning.
The characters who come to life in Moments I Wished I Had – as well as the backgrounds from which they emerge – reveal the artist’s struggle to translate memory into colour. Characters are not always rendered anatomically; a threaded outline of a nose or a mouth whispers a face.
Nyamai leaves the paintings unresolved, which strangely feels more truthful to the subject. This tension enlivens a much more expressive composition, capturing the delicate and makeshift attitude with which we must approach even our best efforts to (re)build a life.
“I always have an idea of what I’m going to do, but I never know how it’s going to turn out,” says the artist. “It’s like working in a new place where you have expectations. You will be surprised.”
Painting in a post-colonial and war-torn context, Nyamai seeks to raise questions about how Kenyans can create an expansive future for themselves after violence. People in the diaspora and around the world agree on this question: the body needs stitches; the bottom needs to be sewn; also the wounded soul and also the collective imagination. This is where the mass of threads that coil and hang from the paintings come into play.
“It’s like walking through fire or walking through an accident where you have an open wound. They need to be stitched together so you can have a fresh start,” says Nyamai.
Each work on display consists of fragments of unstretched canvas sewn together with rough and irregular stitches of sturdy rubber wire. In addition to nods to the braiding and fashion design practices of Nyamai’s grandmother and mother, this choice draws visual attention to the personal and social attempt at recovery from trauma.
The artist says the threads were the result of a random experiment stemming from his 2019 Nairobi show The Fire This Time, which was inspired by James Baldwin’s seminal book Next time the fire.
Whether it’s repairing the strained interpersonal relationship between father and son or weaving a new future for post-colonial Kenya, the stitches aren’t executed neatly. Thick black threads flow from the skin of Nyamai’s characters, possibly reaching out to create a connection with the viewer or to hide their forms from view.
“Moments I Wished I Had” reminds us that art, like history itself, is not simply an object to be admired, but a process that, like the artist, entangles us “in the space between now and past”. puts it. This space is evident on the surface of Nyamai’s composition after everything that needs to fall has fallen away, once wounds have been stitched and fractal memories collected. Only then can we, if at all, talk responsibly about wishes and dreams, about a future in which perhaps all threads will finally come together.
Kaloki Nyamai’s Moments I Wished I Had runs through October 8th at Keijsers Koning, 150 Manufacturing St., Suite 201, Dallas. Wednesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Monday and Tuesday by appointment only. keijserskoning.com