Lydia Galavu in Conversation with Kamal Shah

  1. Kamal, what is your definition of art career success?

More so than in other fields, in the art world, you measure your success from the respect and recognition your work receives from your peers. It is not necessarily measured in terms of the fiscal earnings from your output. I would say, if your feelings and impulses that led you in creating a particular artwork is felt by the observer, that is the definition of success. 

  1. Over the years you have mentored younger artists who are beginning their art careers. What is the most important piece of advice you would offer them today?

First and foremost, each individual has to intrinsically understand their own innermost compulsions! And from that point on…Carry on regardless… I believe that every true artist will trust their innermost instincts and find their true trajectory. At the same time, they must continue to critically look at artwork produced by artists from around the world both historically as well as works made by their contemporaries. 

  1. When 30 years ago you decided to focus on being a full-time artist, what invaluable art business lesson did you learn that took your career to the next level?

When, I decided to make art full time, after years of being in the ‘business’ field, I don’t think I had garnered any particular business angle to further my career…I basically allowed things to fall into place. 

  1. What personality trait do you have that has been most helpful in your art career?

Positive expectations, and believing in myself was paramount.

  1. What career accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

Being selected to showcase my work with a solo show in Arhus in Denmark in 1993 at the Images of Africa Festival. Being featured by CNN International, on their program ‘The Art Club’ in July 2000.  Winning ‘Best in Mixed Media Art’ at the first Juried art show organized by the Ministry of Culture, Alliance Francaise and Goethe in 2006. Invited to show my artworks at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) at the Brunei Gallery in the curated show Sanctuary in 2013. Being one of 50 artists featured in Visual Voices, an amazing compendium of contemporary art in Kenya by Susan Wakhungu-Githuku in 2017. 

  1. When was the first time you exhibited or took part in an art activity at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK)? What impact did this have on you as an artist?

My first solo show at National Museums of Kenya was in 1992. This was my first showing in Nairobi of New Large Format works, I had tremendous help from Wendy Karmali in setting up this show. It was overwhelming and very satisfying to see all my new works in the amazing Gallery of Contemporary Art. This particular showing, in a way I think, convinced a lot of family and others of my commitment to art. Over the years, I have had my art shown at the NMK on several occasions. 

  1. The National Museums of Kenya holds some of the most iconic artworks in the world such as prehistoric pottery and traditional jewellery. If you were to go back in time, at what period in history would you like to spend a day with artists of the time and would this have made a difference in your art?

Traditional jewellery has always fascinated and attracted me, so I would have loved to see the formulation of these pieces, perhaps in the late 19th or early 20th Century. I have in my art practice tried to create neo-ethnic fusion jewellery at various times and I continue using certain traditional material cultural pieces in my mixed media works. 

  1. Artists sometimes say that they get very nervous towards the date of their exhibition opening. How do you usually feel before an opening?

Openings of new shows of my work no longer make me nervous, or at least not as nervous as they used to make me feel. Rather I am excited to show new works, whether it is to an audience that is familiar with my previous works or to newer ones.

  1. About 20 years ago the Nairobi art scene tended to be close knit where almost every artist knew the other by name. Today, there is a significant growth in the number and diversification of artists and their trade. How do you maintain a social network with fellow artists?

I am quite excited by the vast array of fabulous works created by the much larger community of Kenyan artists these days. I do try to familiarize with the works of these ‘newer’ players. Even though I am often unable to attend openings, the digital media is used very vigorously by these youngsters and thankfully I am able to see the output. One other advantage of the digital media is that we are connected to each other as ‘friends’. I am often approached at art shows by individuals who I don’t know personally, but have had brief encounters online! 

  1. If it is true that the art market has shifted its focus from Europe and the USA to a more global perspective – Africa, South America, Asia; how does this, in your view reflect on the Kenyan art market?

I really do not pay much heed to the shenanigans of the art market! Unless, of course, I am, if very rarely, affected!… A lot of the stuff out there is so contrived and convoluted, I find.

  1. ‘Great artists have no country’ – a quote by Alfred de Musset. How would you rate this quote as an African artist of Asian origin?

Highly, most great artists consider themselves as citizens of the UNIVERSE.


  • A Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). She is based at the Nairobi National Museum in the capital city, Nairobi and is an artist with a background in art education, exhibition development, and anthropology.

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