John Sibi-Okumu

Two Kamal Shah paintings hang on the same, off-white coloured wall in the salon section of the apartment which, in Nairobi, is my family’s HQ. One has two humanoid creatures, in energetic conversation, seated on a multi-coloured protuberance, suggestive of a marble plinth. At one corner there is a round, bright, yellow sun, radiating light on strips of sky blue, puffy grey, emerald green and wispy brown.  It is signed by the artist, with ‘91 below the signature. The other painting features Ganesha, the god of plenty, with his elephant’s face and trunk protruding from one end. Beside him is a picassoesque knight in gilded armour, over whom projects a vermillion triangle, ribbed with black, which, to me, is an enigma of sorts. Kamal, being a conceptual artist whose pieces which are mostly untitled, leaves the response to his work entirely in the mind of the beholder. I like one of the two paintings because, for me, it celebrates the capacity to communicate and the other because it is an encouragement to live a life of resilience, joy and zest. The third Kamal Shah in our household is a rectangular clock which features leaves of silver and wood to signpost units of time against a mauve background and circular, cream centre. I like it because it is a thing of beauty.

There are one or two similarities between Kamal and me in our identikit profiles. We are about the same age, which is coded language for ‘we are no longer young’ or, more brutally, ‘we are old’.  We also both went to the same English public-school-styled and bullying-infested boarding institutions, in the wake of independence. Such an education leaves its own peculiar marks on an individual and those who have undergone it have an instant, cult-like communion.

Given the admission above, dear reader, I would go on to say that, for a very long time, I have included Kamal Shah in my social subset of Cherished Friends. As one of many standout memories, I do recall that, as one of the pioneering, prime time newsreaders for the Kenya Television Network or KTN, which was launched in…1990, I bedazzled viewers with ties that had the audacity to use locally printed fabrics. Whenever someone asked, inquisitively: ‘where did you get that from?’ I would defiantly reply, ‘From Kichaka, on Kijabe Street’.

Yes, that’s it! We worked together in…1985, because that was the year in which I mcee’d a fashion show for Kichaka, Artwear Africa of which Kamal was a co-director. And before that, as a frequenter of such spaces, I must have encountered Kamal as the curator of the Rowland Ward Gallery, located on Standard Street. The exact date, year and venue of our first meeting escape me, with the passage of time.

Kamal eventually abandoned his links to big business for the unpredictable and precarious life of a full-time artist. His home has since been his studio and to visit him is to be shown stacks of tableaux, which are not there because he is constantly churning out commissions but, because he is doing his own thing.

Another memory comes to mind. I asked Kamal to provide paintings which would form part of the set of my Role Play, my first original play, to coincide with its publication in…October, 2005. Kamal readily obliged with evocations of a traditional African village, the interior of a wealthy Kenyan home and a captivating view from a verandah. Flipping through a photo album, a veritable relic from a bygone era, I see that Kamal came to opening night.

Which leads me to a meditation on the nature of friendship, as manifested in my relationship with Kamal, over decades. Since we first met, we have both experienced expanded reputations and accomplishments in our different ways. However, to link up is always to continue where we left off, sometimes years before, and to delight in each other’s company, without the putting up of fronts. And I still feel that I can take Kamal’s loyalty, support and goodwill for granted.

I have retraced the edition of a magazine called Msanii which carries a profile of Kamal that I wrote in…. 2006. I would like to think that one of his answers still holds true for him, to this day, in 2021.

 ‘Historically, artists have produced their most important work in their twilight years. If one is so lucky as to live that long, I hope to be continuing. All the greater possibilities are in the future. If you ask me at sixty I’ll say the same. At seventy, I’ll say the same. It’s all about discovery and experimentation. You’re playing with a very liquid form. The paint could flow in any direction. It’s like trees. You see branches. The way they come out. How every branch of every single tree is different. It’s still a learning process.’

I once heard, approvingly, the English writer William Somerset Maugham remark in a posted interview that, ‘there is a space between admiration and appreciation’, going on to qualify that it is possible to admire and respect someone’s output without necessarily being drawn to its creator.

Happily, in Kamal Shah’s case, I both admire and appreciate the man. I admire the tenacity with which he has pursued his calling by ‘making his vocation his vacation,’ and I appreciate his warmth and sensitivity as a human being. He also has a mischievous sense of humour, which is endearing.

Kamal is utterly deserving of this focus on his contribution to our cultural nourishment, nationally and internationally.

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