Kamal Shah – A Triple Heritage

This article by Wendy Karmali was published in 2003 in Thelathini: 30 Faces/Facets of Contemporary Art in Kenya’.

Kamal Shah’s ‘triple heritage’ his links to the three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe and their cultures is a defining characteristic of this accomplished visual artist. He was born in Kenya in 1953, went to England for his higher education, and much of his cultural and artistic inspiration comes from India. This multicultural background is evident in his work, and informs his practice.

Shah graduated from Leeds University in the UK with a degree in English literature and fine arts; a postgraduate diploma in textile design set him, on his return, to becoming one of Kenya’s leading textile designers through the company he co-founded, Kichaka, a multimedia workshop, specialising in printing avant-garde African textiles. But in the mid-90s he decided to paint full time. Looking back on that decision, he comments: ‘I am at a point in my life where I am beginning to see how my life has made itself while I have been living it how naturally and inevitably I have become an artist.’

Kamal is the Sanskrit word for lotus, the flower associated with spiritual purity in Shah’s Jainist religious background. The Lotus is also a recurring theme in his work – a recent solo exhibition in London was called Lotus Sutra. This playful cross-cultural use of language is a reflection of the way he draws on imagery in his paintings: geometrical symbols, totemic and Tantric images as well as other motifs and references from his diverse heritage give zest to Shah’s paintings. Describing his work, Shah says: ‘My art is somewhere between the two orders of the abstract and the figurative, belonging entirely neither to one nor  to the other – often stumbling into a third order of fantasy’.

Shah’s use of colour has been described as uninhibited but, although he does not flinch from using a palette of primary colours, complemented by fluorescent or metallic paints that add a luminous edge to the work, each piece is carefully worked. Whether in his Nairobi studio, or in India – where he has a temporary studio in Goa – Shah invariably has several paintings on the go at any given time, exploring his themes and experimenting with colour.

In his relatively short career as a visual artist, Shah has participated in many solo and group exhibitions at home in Kenya, including Kuona’s Wasanii 2000 international Artists’ workshop. Overseas his work has been exhibited on numerous occasions in England, Denmark and India.

Kamal Shah travels frequently to India, a country that is as much the source of his artistic inspiration as Kenya combined with his experiences of life in Europe, the cross-fertilisation of influences from three continents continues to stimulate his creative, artistic urges. ‘As I paint’ he explains, ‘I am conscious of observing and feeling what goes on both inside and outside of myself – Certain aspects of what is happening adhere to me, as if inevitably magnitised by a centre of mystic gravity. I have learnt to trust this centre and to rely on its acuity and go along with its choices, although the centre itself remains mysterious to me. A suitable logic is beginning to emerge: I use the process of art to contain my intensities and also to exorcise those beyond my endurance’.

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