Warmth and joy in desert com­mu­ni­ties

The East African - - MAGAZINE | ART - - Kari Mutu

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.

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