- Mike Kyalo is a busy man.
- His molten plastic painting, ‘Garbage Collectors’ just won third prize at the annual Manjano Nairobi County Art Competition which was recently on display with other winning works at Alliance Francaise.
- Kyalo has also got a solo exhibition at the Banana Hill Art Gallery entitled ‘Turning Point’ which will be up through the end of May.
Mike Kyalo is a busy man. His molten plastic painting, ‘Garbage Collectors’ just won third prize at the annual Manjano Nairobi County Art Competition which was recently on display with other winning works at Alliance Francaise.
Kyalo has also got a solo exhibition at the Banana Hill Art Gallery entitled ‘Turning Point’ which will be up through the end of May. Incidentally, he also had his paintings in last weekend’s KMS Affordable Art Show at Nairobi National Museum.
But as proud as he is about all the above, Kyalo just made his first international sale when his painting was sold at Bonham’s Contemporary African Art Auction in London for Sh52,200 (402 Euros.)
That is quite a contrast from when he first started winning art competitions in primary school.
“Art wasn’t on the syllabus, but I and my classmates used to chip in 50 cents each and compete for who could create the best drawing,” says Kyalo who was inspired by local cartoonists like Gado and Madd. He never made a fortune from those contests, but he says he invariably won.
Then at Matungulu Boys Secondary, Kyalo founded the Art Club and was elected club chairman. “And after I painted a portrait of the school’s principal, we were given an art room of our own,” he says proudly.
He was still in secondary when he first went to the GoDown Art Centre and met Patrick Mukabi who would become his mentor for several years. His first big breakthrough was winning a one-month artist residency through the Kenya Arts Diary Foundation in 2012. “I spent a month working at Kuona Trust, which ended with my first solo art exhibition,” he recalls.
Kyalo has been working non-stop ever since. Mukabi was a masterful mentor, and one can see his influence in Kyalo's art. But from the beginning, he has been cultivating his distinctive style which one can see most vividly if they make it to Banana Hill Gallery.
There he has almost 50 paintings coming in all sizes with practically all of them focused on the same theme. And that is ordinary Kenyan working people. It is a subject that increasing numbers of local artists have picked up on, but none do it in the same distinctive style as Kyalo.
He started some years back painting boda boda motorcycle taxis, and they are still a popular subject of his work. But his art has branched out into portraits of other kinds of transport.
In his Banana Hills show which he entitles “Turning Point” he paints all sorts of local transport services apart from automobiles. He paints everything from bicycles, mkokotenis, and two-wheeled trolleys to tow trucks, wheelbarrows, and backpack carriers. In every case, the transport person is loaded with luggage, be it sugar cane, bread crates, cabbages, or boxed-up precious cargo which might be cash, company shares or even a carefully packaged birthday cake.
His subjects are what we might now call ‘essential workers’, those without whom the entire commercial system would practically fall apart. Granted, such workers are not glamorous. But they are hard-working. Kyalo's paintings give them the honour and attention that they deserve.
Asked what he means by ‘Turning Point,’ Kyalo says he rarely had painted women before, only working men. He also has tried his hand at landscape and wildlife. But his forte is his portraits of busy Kenyans, most of whom are laborers on the move delivering everything from rocks in a wheelbarrow at a construction site to water, people, and personal luggage, all of which could be loaded onto someone's bike, back, trolley, or rickshaw-like mkokoteni.
He also paints a few portraits of families in lockdown.
Where one will be able to see another 'turning point' in Kyalo's art is at Alliance Francaise. There is where his first 'plastic painting' won for its stunning approach to up-cycling plastic trash.
"I would boil the plastics in three separate sufuria," says Kyalo. "One for each primary colour, red, blue, and yellow. Then I would paint with the hot [liquified[ plastic," he explains.