Needless to say that Dickson Kaloki has ‘come a long way’ from his humble beginnings when he was fresh out of secondary school and signing up for a studio at the GoDown Art Centre.
Kaloki’s currently having an exhibition at Kuona Trust, a place that seems to be thriving despite the former director having been dismissed, the mystery of the missing millions still unsolved, and the resident artists taking up collective responsibility for Kuona’s continuing survival.
What’s clear is that Kuona has a lot of goodwill, and artists like Kaloki know it’s a great place to have a solo show even though the gallery is relatively small.
The garden is spacious and the encircling container-studios were practically all well-lit and open-doored on the artist’s opening night when art-lovers came in droves to celebrate Kaloki’s success.
Dressed in a designer suit created especially for him, the artist may well have broken records last Friday night at his opening. But it wasn’t so much for the size, scale, stunning colors or even the strange squares and rectangular shapes that one could see in every one of his paintings. It was all the red ‘Sold’ stickers that were already affixed below most of his large canvases.
Noting that nothing had been sold before 6pm when the show technically opened, Kaloki confessed he’d received a number of calls from overseas before sundown which required those red dots to appear.
The dots were troubling to a few of the artist’s ‘collectors’ who could be heard complaining that a particular painting was meant to be theirs, not some anonymous absentee buyer’s!
But Kaloki remains humble in spite of his growing fandom. It helps that he’s exhibited everywhere from Germany, Denmark and the UK as well as in many of the popular exhibition spaces in Nairobi (from the Talisman and Que Pasa to Village Market, Nairobi National Museum and even in ambassadorial homes).
In all these places, he’s made friends and admirers of his art which has gone through countless transitions since he first startled us at his GoDown studio with his lovely ‘canal’ paintings. One couldn’t guess initially that they were sewage canals in Mukuru or Mathare. They looked more like narrow waterways found in a city like Venice, Italy.
Today, Kaloki still draws inspiration from the slums and has no shame in so doing. But now his art suggests he’s got deeper commentaries to make on people’s lives and psyches. His storytelling skills have sharpened even as his art has become more semi-abstract.
If one only looks at the way Kaloki has grown from painting mainly mono-chromatic hues to now blending glorious life-affirming shades on a single canvas, the colors could be reason enough to want to have a Kaloki painting on one’s wall.
But if someone is curious as to why every face (however nondescript) is surrounded with a geometric shape, then one may recall the advice of innovators and motivational speakers. They tell us to think ‘out of the box’ if we want to make progress and fearlessly discover and explore new vistas and possibilities in our life.
The irony of Kaloki’s show is in what he says is the most important piece of the exhibition. It’s a white box that one can easily open, only to find a mirror inside and the sight of one’s self reflected back at the viewer.
Perhaps Kaloki’s telling us to ‘dig yourself’ and check to see that you too are not stuck seeing the world from inside your own narrow box.