Justus Kyalo, Untitled , mixed media on canvas 58" x 57.5"
“You come out of the compound there, and that horizon is a painting for me already, the green and the sky, that separation…. For me there is no formula.” - Justus Kyalo, January 2015
An open, semi-arid savannah where the pastoral Maasai people traditionally coexisted with herds of migrating wildlife, Kitengela is an unusual natural space due to its thirty-kilometer distance from the urban center of Nairobi. Not surprisingly, Kitengela is a place that has seen rapid urbanization as a result, with the population more than doubling in the past decade as farmers have started selling off their land. New universities, cement factories, hospitals, banks, and flower farms are part of this expansive development. But the most decisive shift in the Kitengela rangeland is its division into residential and smaller farming land parcels. Crop farming, fences, and human population pressure threaten the buffalo herds, giraffes, waterbucks, gazelles, hyenas, cheetahs, hippopotamuses, baboons, warthogs, monkeys, and other diverse wildlife that roam the grasslands.
Rural areas seductively beckoning to the expanding urban center is a familiar story. Land ownership and use is likewise a complicated issue, defined differently and the source of many battles all over the world. Who should land belong to? Is it a material possession, or is it an abstract drawing of boundaries? Can it belong to just one person, or should it be a commons? Who or what gets to determine its use?
Land ownership is very real, the most concrete and unquestionable, in that it represents the owner’s rootedness to a place as well as a concentration of wealth. It is also the most intangible thing. “Marking territory” seems to describe a physical process of demarcation, but it is often invisible and seemingly arbitrary - a political line between nations, for example, which has such resounding effects in how it is treated and negotiated as a means of physically dividing people, cultures, rights. Migrating animals and natural features, like rivers, don’t recognizes these imaginary lines, but they still value their use of the land and carry on anyway.
Justus Kyalo’s paintings, to me, are about a valuation and sensory experience of land that goes beyond the political divisions of ownership and sovereignty. When we visited him this January at his studio and home off a dirt road in the Kitengela plains, he described for us his vivid memories of color. He could recall the green uniforms of the bus conductors in the Nairobi of his childhood, the yellow and green lines on the buses. This rapidly flickering synaesthesia extends to his description of Kenyan landscape, where “in a few minutes you have snow, a few minutes you have savannah, a few minutes you have forest.” These impressions are embedded in his deeply color-saturated canvases, which are often textured, like land, by folds, ridges, ravines, and gashes. Sometimes spatial partitions are created, but these are boundaries that bleed and radiate into each other. Kyalo’s work draws ready comparisons to the midcentury American abstract expressionists, such as Barnett Newman’s Onement series, where the canvas is divided by a stark line, or Mark Rothko’s luminous color field paintings. However, their work is about a subjective experience of color that aspires to a transcendent universality, which ultimately refers back to the canvas and the process of applying paint to a flat surface. Kyalo’s work instead registers his color memories of terrain. When looking over the vast plain of Kitengela, unless there is a physical boundary such as a fence, it is impossible to tell who owns what plot of land. Divisions of ownership and control are beside the point, and the horizon is the only line drawn within an experience of land and sky.
AfroArt East Africa Interview of Justus Kyalo