When Tahir Karmali left for the US in 2014, many knew this Kenyan-Indian artist was on a trajectory that transcended any of our own wildest dreams.
What we had not banked on was Tahir coming back and bringing with him a whole new aesthetic language, a whole ‘other’ means of communication that might not be as easy to pick up as say, Sheng or Somali or some Slavic derivation.
Yet his welcome home solo exhibition that opened last Wednesday night at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi entitled ‘Bound Between Cliffs’ was one of the most refreshingly radical shows that we’ve seen anywhere for quite some time.
Not that it is easily understood, for that is not Karmali’s point, leave alone his goal as one can surmise from the title of one series of his works collectively called “A Measure of My Self Pressed into Soil.” The title suggests that his art is fundamentally self-reflective. But then, much more is going on.
Karmali was into photography before he left Kenya, so it is no surprise that he got a Masters’ degree in Digital Photography from the School of the Visual Arts in New York in 2015. But again, before he left Kenya, one could already see how edgy and experimental he was artistical.
But now, one sees the experiments have morphed into a surprising range of multi-media creations. For example, a work such as ‘Between Bones’ might be described as a tapestry. But then, who’s ever seen a wall hanging made as a blend of brass, steel, silk, rubber, cotton, and butane paint?
An equally unique concoction is ‘Sharp Edges’ which is also made out of brass, steel, silk, cotton, and rubber (only this time it’s white). But Karmali also added a bit of ‘oxidised metal from a police gun’ as well as several screws and a touch of red soil.
But then, he takes off on another tangent when he works with plain charcoal and graphite to draw ‘Charcoal Studies’ that I still don’t understand but appreciate for their exposure of the artist working out new ideas as a process of unfoldment.
There are so many elements of Karmali’s show that I find appealing. For instance, his stunning use of a myriad of elements, transforming them, not from junk to gems or ‘trash to treasures’ as so many other artists have almost trivialised.
He has simply perceived new possibilities in his way of mixing up things such as magnets, mabati (iron sheets), and screws with oxidised metal from someone's gun, indigo soil, silk, and cotton to create another work like “Bound Earth’.
Karmali has even included a series of paper-making projects that he produced by hand. He somehow redesigned photocopies of old immigration forms that probably once reflected struggles he might have had with US immigration. But he transformed those unfortunate forms into delicate textures and works of abstract art.
There are several intriguing series of works in Karmali’s first solo show since his return to Kenya. One includes another series of textiles that he created out of silk and white rubber. These are also created by somehow blending brass, steel, screws, cotton, and oxidised gun metal.
But in a piece sush as ‘Weathered Cliffs’, he manages to create another form that looks brighter and utterly different from a work made with similar materials like ‘Between Bones’.
His series on ‘Paradise’ is especially appealing in its monochromatic approach to screen printing on something he calls an “organic natural dip-dyed canvas.’ I’m curious how a canvas can be all that, but I’ll take his word for it.
The other series that gives more clarity to Karmali’s style of creating is his ‘Grid encountering Natural Form”. It’s got symmetry, backing up his framed miniature ‘archival screen prints on paper’. Altogether, it creates an image that could mean anything, but at best it’s beautiful.
Much has been made of Karmali’s diversity of taste, his fascination with contrasts between the feather-weight beauty of silk which features so frequently in his show and the tough love type of artistry that he achieves with iron-sheet or mild steel.
But the beauty of Karmali’s art is that he blends these diverse elements into singular works which lead one to appreciate the new vocabulary of his creation.
There is just one stark element in Karmali’s exhibition that I seriously couldn’t understand. It was his sound installation, found at the far end of the show. The sound is ominous as you enter a narrowing black iron-sheet tunnel. So what’s its significance?
“It’s a symbol of death,” Karmali simply tells BDLife. And that’s that.