The Nairobi art scene is just beginning to discover Joakim Kwaru, one of the young bright artists that Maasai Mbili artists’ collective admitted into permanent membership in early 2016 after having remained a small close-knit group of about half a dozen artists for years.
He was previously famously known for being Kota Otieno’s student and later Kevo Stero’s studio assistant, with his recent small show of paintings at M2 he has really come into his own, consolidated a more or less recognizable painting technique and has made two huge works that display a growing confidence in his own abilities and a fervent desire to break away from limitations of studio space. He mixes with great colorful energy characters, the architecture, roads, flora and fauna from his neighborhood with fragments of found basketry, recycled sackcloth and street signs.
It takes many viewings to factor in all the intricate details. His expression of revolt and explosive, incendiary life in his everyday urban environment brings to mind artists from the great Kibera painting tradition. Gor, Kota, Wiki, Kevo Stero, Gomba all have it. His unrestrained use of violent figuration and bold and clear dark outlines is a welcome reminder of the power of paint to capture in a snapshot the vitality and intricacies of contemporary living. The title of British pop artist Richard Hamilton’s collage of 1956,‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ does it for me every time. I have recently chosen to number rather than title my own work and have progressively lost the belief that titles really add to the meaning of a work of art.
To illustrate, Kwaru’s paintings are certainly about Kibera his titles only serve to emphasize exactly that.
One title works really well though. ’Me and My Pet’ is title of the largest probably the most important work in the show. It is a huge angry statement in torn recycled sackcloth done in bold stark colours. It is the same colours that are repeated throughout the work in the show-a kind of washed out blue and a kind of washed out purple with a bit of washed out yellow. Only this time an angry blot of bold really hot colors outline a giant ghostly human form that almost meshes into the architectural landscape. It is the image of the typical corrupt, lying, self-seeking and exploitative politician who rides roughshod over the ghetto only during election time and disappears into the corridors of power as soon as he is elected leaving his populace poor and disgruntles-until the next time.
Born and raised in Kianda village of Kibera in 1992, Kwaru has observed and been influenced by the sociopolitical changes that are taking place in Kibera as slum upgrading takes place slowly but surely. The place and the rights of the average slum resident are therefore of this artist’s interest. He is concerned by the marginalization of the poor in the national economy as well as with the glaring gap between the have and have nots in this country.
He is worried that the poor only get poorer and the rich richer. His urban landscapes are haunted by humans with thin necks, unplanned streets and buildings and plants that are rare. There is a kind of violence and danger suggested by the cold coloration, the frantic shapes and the ominuous suns and moons. His painting achieves a careful balance between pathos and aggression. While the vitality of his style recalls Kevo Stero’s Daily Kibera, the darker undercurrents and themes describe a battlefield straight out of Kota Otieno. Kwaru has been included in exhibitions at the Circle Art Gallery, Maasai Mbili Artists Collective, Nagenda International Art academy, Uganda and the Godown Art Centre. He has led numerous children art workshops at Maasai mbili and for miti milele. He has been a volunteer for Affirmative art, an international public art initiative. He has helped to build Daily Kibera’s installations such as ‘Nyumba Kumi’, ‘Jobless Corner Campus’ and ‘Hotel of the Opressed’.
By Mbuthia Maina, Artist and writer