David Kaiza | AfricanColours.com
Peter Walala lives and works about ten minutes north of Nairobi in a place curiously named Kahawa (coffee).
Nairobi, sitting on the well-risen rump of land that builds up to the eastern escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, is a city that has - and is close to - nearly every climatic zone. If you drive east you will find yourself in open savannah grasslands; to the west is a temperate zone where temperatures can plummet; northwest, you are in the tropics. Flying an hour northwards, you hit the desert. The city has its winters and autumn comes mixed up with summer.
Nude figure by Peter Walala
The maize has just been harvested and in a corner of the compound a couple sits stripping seeds off the cobs. There are chickens clucking and you hear the sound of a maize mill in the distance. The hustling, bustling sounds of the city are far away. The dirt roads are dark brown earth (in contrast to the grey, sandy soils you find on other side of the city and the red soil further north).
Kahawa is the opposite of flat and wiry Embakasi. It resembles Eastern Congo, intoxicatingly green with tropical-sized bushes, big leaves that sway in the wind. Hence you get a sense of abundance in Walala’s “studio”. If the atmosphere around it is airy and regaling, that is because he works in the open – among fluttering mango, banana and silver oak leaves.
Like his city, Walala’s art encompasses nearly all art’s climates – and sometimes quite literally: in 2003, he won an international award for ice-sculpting.
The first thing you notice when you walk to his studio (apart from the mango tree close by) is the laminated woodwork-in-progress of a female form with enormous thighs, legs bent at painful angles. She has no head and leans forward precariously.
Kushoto Kulia | Laminated wood
Next to this is what must have been a wooden box, the bottom eaten out by termites. Someone – must be Walala – left it near burning rubbish and plastic melted all over it.
Pointing at the female form, he says: “I think the position of my sculptures is not normal. When models sit, it’s normal. They must be broken.”
Then he looks thoughtful and says: “But broken is not a part of it.”
His attention moves to the ex-box. “This piece of wood I retrieved when my neighbour was moving. The wood was the base of a water tank. It was rotting…no. Not rotting. I must use the right word.”
Then he launches into an explanation: “I was in Vermont once and I said, ‘I used a piece of wood which was rotting’. You know Americans want to be very particular about words you use. Someone told me ‘no you don’t say rotten wood; its spouted wood.’”
So the box was never a box? But it is curious, for its final look does not look intended. Yet it is a sculpture. Running over and dripping to the side of it is molten green, blue and black plastic. “I wanted to create a greenhouse inferno,” Walala says and, at once, this discarded ugly object straps into significance.
The first works of Walala I saw were a collection of curious vessels, slightly smaller than washbasins, made of papier-mâché – but like plastic basins that got caught in a fire and closed in. Their significance struck me powerfully. So going to Kahawa, I expected to find some super-clean studio with paper soaking in glue.
Empty Talk series | papier-mâché
Instead, it was this compound in which every art form was in the nascent stage of becoming: steel wires, half-done stone sculptures, a white Fiat Uno with power tools and bottles of raisin and lime, Even the Uno was dashed about with yellow spray. There was wood all over. What was missing was papier-mâché. But there were two giant wheat flour paper packs into which a woman later emptied paper.
The remains of a fire smoldered. “No I don’t have a furnace,” he said. Understandably in the weather, there were no ice blocks.
Like his city, Walala is an artist whose mind goes rapidly in all directions; the abundance of his aesthetics, the endless variation of theme and possibility, a richness in which everything is brought to perfection.
Yet despite all of this, perhaps his most arresting work comprises the tiny, twisted wire forms with a twist.
Writer David Kaiza holding a contraption of 'The movies' by Peter Walala
“The movies”, as he calls them, is where Walala the electrical engineer (which he studied to become) meets Walala the artist:
Like fractals in 3-D, his “movies” are partial repetitions of spiral shapes that, linked up, begin to enchant. They are experimental. There are those with levers that, when you manipulate them, literally start to walk.
Others remain stationary. Laid flat, they look like miniature fancy gates or burgler-proofing for windows of a dollhouse. Then you pick them up by one end and they reshape themselves.
Next they become designer TV trolleys. Push two ends in and they become a bookshelf. Shove the piece inwards and you get a wine rack. Pull them up and a pylon arises. There is a box-kite. The sketch of a Bauhaus high-rise.
They go on. I compacted one piece in and made spectacles and pen holder.
“I put a motor on this one,” he picks one. “But I had used resin to hold the wires and it broke.”
“The Movies” can keep you occupied an entire day. For Walala, they are the beginning of a search that might go very far.
Some of his works combine the different media that he uses.
“Birds of a Feather” are two sculptures that combine wood and metal. One might be an ostrich, given the lithe grace and leg-to-body ratio. But that is less true of the second bird, which has a balled up abdomen (if birds can be said to have abdomens). The metal-wood combination enhances the poise. The metal is wrapped round the wood so it does not look like flight equipment, rather like protective braces. This is your first reaction, especially if they are standing below you.
The papier-mâché pieces, “Empty Talks”, as he calls them, are an intriguing lot. Like his “Movies”, they resemble many things - Like shells that start to buckle in when their nuts have been taken out, they make one think of nourishment. They look like wilted tulip bulbs, having turned grey. They are surprisingly solid. When you tap them, they sound like wood rather than paper.
Empty Talk series, Papier Mache
Effeminate, ample and enticing, these look like vessels from which something life-giving has emerged. Like all of his work, looking at them makes one happy and this perhaps comes from the fullness of the forms.
Yet his works are masculine too; the wing-bars on the “Birds of a Feather” are steel welded in. The heads are ignition-plugs. Grinder-smoothed, the metal shows how the artist worked. The legs are curved just so slightly so you see how a bird’s thighs bow delicately outwards.
The laminated female form on his compound is part of a series he calls “Kushoto-Kulia”. These moderately large sculptures - his most seductive works - abound with curves, sexual robustness - lines of thighs and hips bulging tightly against the wood.
They are made of several pieces of wood glued and held together with wooden dowels. The lamination emphasizes the curves greatly. “Kushoto-kulia” is a Kiswahili phrase of command in military parades for left-right. Here, what the artist sets marching are the buttocks that go left-right, left-right. The dowels that fasten the lamination bring a texture of their own into the work, like pot-marks.
As he waits to get his hands on large pieces of stone, he is working on miniature sculptures. “Waiting Vulture” is a neat little execution that extracts life out of the ubiquitous Nairobi stone. Half a foot high, it rises in an upward and inward curveting form to become rump, wing and head. The lines again. Subtle here, they sharpen the form of the “Waiting Vulture”. The stone is finely chipped in chisel point to attain a roughcast surface. When you look at the head and neck, you notice he has spent time smoothing out chin, moustache and throat.
Waiting Vulture | Blue stone
When you think about his “Movies”, woodwork and papier-mâché, you have the intellectual profile of an artist whose range is impressive.
In 2003, he and colleague Michael Kaloki headed to the Quebec Winter Carnival. Walala had never worked on ice before and so he first spent time in a cold room in Nairobi practicing chiselling chunks of it. Once in Canada, they cut a rhino out of ice. To his and everyone’s surprise, they won first prize in the “Realistic Category”.
“Africa’s Second Ice age,” CNN announced. “Kenya’s Snow Business Stars,” the BBC trumpeted inelegantly.
“There was a global warming conference so we made a rhino,” he says. “Rhinos are endangered. Snow and ice are endangered so these came together in the theme. I think that’s why we won.”
In 2004, the pair travelled to Korkeasaaari in Finland where they worked on a piece called “Giraffe”, which paradoxically resembled a caterpillar. In 2005, Walala returned to Korkeasaaari, this time chiselling a piece entitled “Rock Master”, which looks like a cross between a llama and a grasshopper.
His works are tightly contained and this contrasts delectably with the suave lines and fine execution.
Walala is a restless man, whose eyes glow when he talks about his work. He is scrupulous about the words he uses and does not hesitate to correct the ones you come up with to describe his work.
He says he picked his talent from his father who would spend weekends taking apart and reassembling electronics. He was only a boy when he started repairing electronics himself. “I was never broke”. This inevitably led him to a technical college where he studied electrical engineering.
Engineered, studied, balanced and anthropometric, they beg the question: which direction is he taking them?
“I realise I have to self-experiment,” he says. “If there were enough institutions that give artists a retainer which pays for your ideas, I would do a lot. The basics need to be taken care of, regardless of time or season. If you are an artist, you don’t need to do business. In society, the artist is the pinnacle of ideas.”
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