Born in 1980 in Nairobi, Peterson Kamwathi is part of a generation of young East African artists whose break with the colonial tutelage that for decades defined the region’s art has afforded the exploration of topics both deeply rooted in Africa’s cultural background and engaged with global contemporary issues.
Peterson’s highly codified, symbolic, conceptual works, whose content and concepts go far beyond local relevance, distance themselves from the usual patterns of reception of figurative art from Kenya. Rendered in thick layers of charcoal, pastel, watercolor, stencils and more recently collage, Peterson’s figures are anonymous, static, almost abstract, a physical presence powerfully pushed to the forefront of the picture plane and the viewer’s attention by dense backgrounds devoid of vanishing points.
His practice, fostering the idea of art as a process-based and time-based project, often creates encapsulated visual archives by exploring contemporary themes in series and in layers, each group of works exploring social, political, personal and institutional structures symbolized through the depiction of the human figure. Each work is part of a series, thematically intertwined whilst individually delving deeper into the concept that informs the group.
Peterson’s group of works Sitting Allowance, which propelled him to national and international attention in 2007, was arguably the strongest and most visible artistic engagement with the deep crisis that Kenyan society experienced during the violence that exploded in the country after the general election of 2007-08, which left over 1000 people dead and to this day over 300,000 internally displaced people. It is an enigmatic, challenging and powerful comment on the political and social constitution not only of Kenya but the rest of the continent, an indictment on the institutions most closely associated with common electoral failures and corrupt political processes.
The structure and anatomy of prayer is at the core of his current practice. Shying away from literal connotations and mere illustration, the figures that build up the compositions are generic, anonymous, collaged into skewered and organized shapes. Each figure is individually drawn and cut out, expressing the intimate, personal nature of prayer and exposing human vulnerability, whilst the assembling and overlapping of the collaged forms physically reflects the contradicting power found in the collective act of organized prayer.
The abstract, generic nature of the postures presented by Peterson underscores how at their center the rituals and positions are almost the same. It is this tension between the propagated doctrinal difference and the similarity of ritualistic positions that transcend difference of opinion, beliefs, color, gender and ethnicity that so fascinates Peterson and is at the core of his current practice.
Peterson is also currently working on a permanent sculpture installation as part of the public project commissioned by Garden City Mall in Nairobi, the first of its kind in Kenya.
Kamwathi’s work has been exhibited in numerous venues around the world including Kenya, the UK, the USA, Holland, Austria, El Salvador and Finland.
He has participated in several residencies, including the Fontys Academie Kenya-Holland Exchange in 2003, Artists in Residence at the University of Kentucky, USA in 2005, printmaking residencies at the London Print Studio and Bath Spa University College in 2006, the Thupelo International Artist workshop in South Africa 2006, and Art Omi 2009 International Artists Residency, New York. He was part of the Nairobi Art Trusts’ Amnesia Project and the Jet-Lag experiment project in 2008 and 2009 and exhibited at the 2010 and 2014 Dakar Biennale, Senegal. He continues to participate in several residencies in Europe and the US.