Jimmy Kitheka’s story is classic. A self-proclaimed self-taught artist, who never attended a formal art institution. Yet there was something inside him that inspired him to pursue the visual arts.
“I was teaching at the time,” says Kitheka who was at home in Dandora one morning where he saw Dickens Kaloki on NTV in a talk show where local artists were being interviewed.
“I really liked what Kaloki had to say, so I reached out to him, and he’s the one who referred me to Patrick Mukabi at the Dust Depot,” says the young man who traces his learning about art directly back to that chance encounter with Kaloki and finally to Dust Depot and Mukabi.
Many Kenyan artists trace their ‘origin story’ back to Mukabi who has had an Open Door policy of sharing his stupendous esthetic and teaching skills with young aspiring Kenyans like Jimmy for many years.
“I joined Patrick in 2014 and stayed with him until 2019 when I finally opened a studio of my own at Karen Village,” he adds, admitting it was COVID that compelled him to quit Dust Depot. “It was the Railway Museum that made Patrick shut down the studio altogether,” he told BDLife.
Kitheka was soon to be joined by a slew of other former Mukabi students who had no choice but the leave their mentor. Yet eventually, even Makabi had to shift to Karen Village where there was an abundance of space and heaps of inspiration to be drawn from fellow aspirants also wanting to cultivate their creative talents just like Kitheka.
He has been busy ever since he started working with Patrick and taking his artistic advice. “I think it shows in the art I’ve displayed at Alliance Francaise,” he tells BDLife a few days after his first solo exhibition opened on August 5.
Mukabi gave him advice about the use of color and chiaroscuro (light and shade) painting which one can see clearly in his collection of nearly 30 paintings.
The works are all painted in a somber set of dark blues and blacks with only small dabbling of light hues in shaded contrasts. The one exception are the browns which appear in every painting thanks to his including at least one African in every work.
Prepared in a semi-hyper-realistic style, his figurative characters all feel like friends that you too might know. They each have a familiarity stemming from their all being connected in some way to the artist.
“A few of my people are models, and I am featured in one or two of the works. But the paintings are mainly filled with friends and people I meet on the street,” he says.
“Sometimes I take photos of them. Sometimes, I simply commit their look to memory and then head home to paint,” adds Kitheka whose exhibition is aptly entitled ‘Light and Blue Silence’.
The colors are all drenched in dark blues which suggests that rains are on the way. The grounds tend to be blackish-brown. Yet Kitheka claims his choice of monotone in all the works in this collection are not meant to be seen as either somber or sad.
“They’ve all been inspired by peacocks, a bird my mother loved and displayed all over our home in photographs and magazine clippings,” he recalls. That’s the one evidence of beauty and abundance that he saw every day in his early life.
“This is not my first solo exhibition, but it is the only one that’s been inspired by peacocks” says the 29-year-old artist who recalls looking for peacock feathers that he could bring to his mom. “They made her really happy,”
“My first solo show was at the British Institute [of East Africa] in 2018. The second one is in Venice, at the AKKA Gallery where I currently have an exhibition concurrent with the Venice Biennale,” he adds.
Kitheka will actually be flying off to Paris shortly where AKKA‘s Chris and Lydia… have another gallery and will have another opening for young Kenya later this month.
“I met Chris in Nairobi while I was exhibiting with John Kariuki at the Nairobi National Museum,” he says.” He liked my work so much, he asked if he could represent me in Italy,” Kitheka says. “How could I say no!”
Previously, Kitheka has exhibited all over Nairobi and also did a residency at the Tafaria Castle. ‘Light and Blue Silence’ will run up until end of September.