The flat canvases of Chemu Ng’ok’s paintings writhe with a tense anxiety. In Untitled (2015), her central figure is less a defined body than a head of loose, unraveling lines and a torso of overlapping paint streaks. Realistic planes are ignored as a pair of feet dangle above the central figure’s body and escape from the frame. In Riot I (2015), a group of bodies aggressively reach their arms away from the canvas frame. Like the floating legs, the arms focus on something beyond the edge of the painting. Splashes of red paint are not just a painterly drip but rather, blood. In only gesturing towards reality and placing the scene beyond what the viewer can see, Ng’ok creates an imaginary space to explore ideas of violence, relationships, and society.
Tahir Carl Karmali may be based in Brooklyn nowadays, but his artwork heavily mines his African history. In Strata (2017), Karmali extracts the copper, cobalt oxide, and aluminum from rechargeable batteries to create a dye for his raffia cloth hangings. In so doing, he calls attention to the ways in which colonialism still exists through the use and abuse of mining in the Congo. He transforms a colonialist product into a reflection on contemporary colonialism. This global concern becomes more individual. In one series, he visualizes displacement — and gives agency to the displaced — through studio portraiture. In another series, Karmali has a heavier hand in the visualization of a group of people. He produces collaged portraits based on the idea of jua kali, an informal economy in Nairobi in which workers use recycled materials and found objects to make money. These portraits are Karmali’s attempt to shine a positive light on this often looked-down-upon sector of Nairobi’s economy.
Some more contemporary Kenyan artists: Chemu Ng’ok, Wangechi Mutu, Mwangi Hutter, Phoebe Boswell, Boniface Maina, Michael Armitage, Elias Mungora, David Thuku, Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, Alex Malinda, Beatrice Wanjiku, and Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga