The Star (Nairobi)

28 August 2012

Kenya: The Charcoal Effect

Since his first solo exhibition in November 2011, "painting has been the one constant" in Dickson Kaloki's world.

A local art director, homegrown fashion designer and recreational musician, Kaloki says his colleagues are often shocked to discover his artwork amongst those of the most celebrated artists on the contemporary Kenyan scene.

It was his slum-series that fixed Kaloki on the map; a sequence of slapdash charcoal sketches on vivid red and blue backdrops of acrylic on canvas. Consumed by mabati structures and the obscure corridors in between, his spectators pushed hard for a political or socio-economic agenda as a basis for understanding his work.

But Kaloki maintained that he simply felt an urge to absorb the energy at places like Kanaro River ( a particular segment of the Nairobi River that runs alongside Fuata Nyayo and Mariguini slum), and create visual interpretations of his experience. Exhibiting at Talisman Restaurant, Kaloki's new slum series carries his signature telephone lines, sewage pipes and murky waters but now we see a second layer of paint and charcoal, and minute features, including minarets and crosses in the distance.

Moving from a monochromatic colour scheme to neon paint; there's been a slight change in effect. There's also a top coat- an added filter of charcoal etching to his usual minimalist designs, which creates more depth and, as a consequence, a more tangible feel. "The paintings were asking for more," says Kaloki. "I think I had limited what I was giving them and I wasn't satisfied. What you see now is my mind running faster. There's more confusion, almost like I'm fighting a battle." Pointing at his painting Spiritual Warfare, he explains, "These days you see different religious structures competing for the same space while all kinds of other activities are going on. Things happen so close together. You can reach out and touch your neighbour.

There's so much in the air all the time, and I want to capture that. I use acrylic, pastel, oil and charcoal to create a mixed-media effect, just like the feeling of being there." By the bar area at Talisman, Kaloki's painting, The Journey Continues, is especially intriguing and incorporates the orange and yellow highlights of his new works. It also bears a smudgy charcoal overcoat, more severe than in his previous works. The feelings evoked almost contradict one other. It's a bleak and barren shanty with an illusory calm, one that consoles. There's an appeasing sensation that quietens your mind.

It's Kaloki's Kanaro series, however, consisting of three giant works by the main fireplace, which will leave you awestruck. Kanaro I, a gargantuan work, is another landscape image of a slum section by Mater Hospital in South B. Kanaro River appears in the forefront. The sheer size of the work is daunting and, the vigorous colours and haphazard charcoal lines defining the hovel overwhelm you.

From an intense orange on left and detailed shading, the painting grades down to a light yellow and whispery brittle lines on the right. Hazy white brush strokes create movement, making it look surreal, as if the slum spirit is leaving, or the entire shanty might just disappear. Having started his career sketching nudes, Kaloki has already proved his technical aptitude and been through a phase of more realistic creations.

When asked where the people his paintings used to feature are now, he responds, "I've done all of that, and now I just want to enjoy the abstract; I want to produce something different, something that doesn't exist, something from my head." When we asked Kaloki what painting an abstract feels like, he seemed to go off point. It's only when he finished his sentence that his response made perfect sense. Cheekily, he compares it to pursuing a partner. "I love women," he laughs, "They excite me and make me work harder, and just like when you pursue a lady, I react gently with my paintings and wait patiently until they ask for more."

Youthful and intrepid, Kaloki welcomes us to a mischievous but sensitive crew of artists caught between pop art and pensive ravings. "For me, slums are just structures," he says. "They're just places to live. Take that same kid from the slum and place him in a house in Runda or a school in Karen, and he will be capable of the same things. Living in a slum has no meaning when it comes to his potential."

Kaloki continues to mentor underprivileged kids in the slums, teaching them to paint and draw. In November, the children he mentors through Annos Africa will exhibit their work in the UK, and in February 2013, he will travel to Germany in support of a fundraising exhibition under One Fine Day, which also showcases the works of his apprentices.

Training at local art institutions over the last few years, in 2005 Kaloki began painting at the GoDown Arts Centre under the guidance of artists such as Patrick Mukabi. Later, he moved to a communal studio at Kuona Trust where he worked alongside feted artists Cyrus Kabiru and Dennis Muraguri. Since then, he has returned to the GoDown, where he continues to work, in his own space.

Rumour has it that Kaloki is part of the administrative team organising a grand exhibition in the near future. The upcoming show will also be an opportunity for him to exhibit his own works alongside those of Kenya's most popular artists, including Peter Elungat, Justus Kyalo, Jimnah Kimani and John Kamicha. It will launch first at the Panafric Hotel in Nairobi, and then later travel to a gallery in Madrid.

The exhibition is organised by Kobo Trust, who will both compensate the artists, as well as give to the community development projects they sustain. The neon lights and heavy charcoal take Kaloki's slum series to the next level. You'll either love it or hate it. With such dramatic images, you'll definitely have an opinion. Should you be lucky enough to meet the artist himself, you will be charmed by his affable character and trendy demeanour. There's no denying that Dickson Kaloki marches to his own street beat.

"High Voltage Roofs" will run at Talisman Restaurant until September 9.

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