Warmth and joy in desert communities
Artist Kamau Ng’aari regularly visits disadvantaged communities in Kajiado County in southwestern Kenya. He donates food to drought-stricken communities, gives art classes to children and comes away with inspiration for painting portraits.
In the Desert Series, grandmothers are central to the theme of his paintings. “I depict the grandmother telling stories to children,” says Ng’aari.
The painting that caught my attention was a portrait of a clean-shaven elderly Maasai woman with stretched earlobes and a smiling face. In this expressionist-style image, her skin tone is a stark contrast against a white background.
Another collection is the Desert Smile Series. Here Ng’aari captures people in moments of joy, reflecting on his time with disadvantaged children.
“The look in their eyes is full of life and love,” he says of his subjects.
One of the paintings is of a young girl with cornrows with an expression of sheer delight. Another is of a child with a timid smile, staring up at something outside of the frame. Both images filled me with a sense of pleasure and hope.
A self-taught artist, Ng’aari took a 12-year break from painting, went to university and got a white-collar job.
“But that world was never meant for me,” he says. Four years ago, he returned to an art journey of “ups and downs but fruitful lessons”.
He recently presented his artwork at an exhibition called Identity held at the British Institute in Eastern Africa. There were paintings of women, some modern and others in cultural dress.
“Identity to me is purely governed by what we want the world to perceive of us, based on how we look, beauty...” says Ng’aari.
My Religion is a painting of a woman in white clothing, a white veil around her head and an intense look that is lit by dim lighting. His take on the home life is expressed in Home is Love, a painting depicting a red loveheart inside a bird’s nest against a dark red background.
But it is in Desert Series that I think Ng’aari’s tells his story best.