One of Kenya's most highly regarded artists, Peterson Kamwathi represents a new generation of East African artists whose practices eschew historical colonial tutelage in favor of exploring societal, cultural, and economic issues that resonate both locally in Kenya and globally.
At first glance, some of Peterson's works call to mind the famous surrealist Renee Magritte, in particular his work Golconda, 1953, in which an army of bourgeois, bowler-capped businessmen fill the canvas floating, mindless drones or specters atop a typical London skyline. However, unlike Magritte's dreamlike and illusionary canvases, Peterson's anonymous characters gather in highly symbolic gestures and spaces - not to question our perception of reality so much as to call out positionality and points of gathering or departure as highly important states of being.
His practice, which has evolved through a prolific sequence of compelling thematic series, features anonymized characters that feature prominently in the foreground in sharp contrast to the highly symbolic backgrounds of each canvas. A self-declared observe, this vantage point affords Kamwathi a unique perspective to capture each "micro social cosmos."
Kamwathi's Constitutional Bulls and Nchi Yetu Series (2005-2008) addressed the societal response to the 2002-2003 constitutional referendum in Kenya, wherein the Bomas Process (in Swahili, the term is a double entendre, representing both a cattle enclosure and administrative offices) was distorted and highly provocative. The resulting woodprints are of animals playing out their hierarchical societal roles, from the herded and weaponized sheep to the overfed and obstinate bulls.
His Sitting Allowance Series (2008-2009) was Kamwathi's response to the post-election violence of the 2007 Kenyan election, introducing his large-scale charcoal works, mostly in the form of either isolated figures or anonymized populace organizing in queues. Widely acclaimed internationally and locally, the series represented a powerful visual indictment on political processes in Kenya and across the continent.
Kawmathi's Positions Series (2014-2015) focused on exploring positions of prayer ritual within organized religions, originating from his observations of the ever-present tension between Christianity and Islam. Each anonymized figure is created in charcoal and affixed to the backdrop, the process of which highlights the vulnerability of the individual and the power of the collective - exposing the commonality and similarity of each prostration or ritual gathering across lines. Ultimately, the series addresses the power of rituals to transcend our differences and to combat hierarchical doctrine.
Kamwathi's Constellations and Sediments (2016-2018) series Kamwathi explored human movement as a fundamental process in the creation of societal structure. Commenting on the mass forced migration of individuals during the period, the series attempts to define what compels people to undertake these migrations: "constellation being the air of collective and individual aspirations, sediments symbolizing the many layers that constitute the difficult realities inherent to these transitions. Constellations can be hope, dreams for a better future and personal ambitions. Sediments are an individual's past, the history of one's society and their place in it, limitations in access to basic human needs and wants. Dreams and aspirations are ever changing," says Kamwathi.
Kamwathi's current series, Noble Savage, tackles themes dealing with self-identity, fragmentation, hierarchy of oppression, and how the individual is part and parcel to the collective. Building on his previous series' exploration of the individual as part of the collective, Noble Savage explores both the status of the individual in the collective - as a fundamental building block - in contrast to the exotification of the collective and romantic primitivism.