Breaking taboos

John Kamicha on his bike in Nairobi
John Kamicha on his bike in Nairobi

“I don’t like people who agree with me!” Discussing, questioning and experimenting are second nature to John Kamicha. As a visual artist he loves to experiment with materials, techniques and content. “I have a very free spirit and without experimenting and questioning things in life I get bored.”

John Kamicha never went to art school but learned all he knows about art from his father who was a famous artist in Nairobi. “I felt like I was in a palace, I had good quality brushes and paint and everything. I didn’t like going to school, so I focused fully on art. It has always been this way; it was not even a conscious choice. What I’ve always liked about art is that it doesn’t have limitations.”

Living like an animal

One of the many things that John does is working with mixed media on lesso, a traditional East African textile that is used by East African women as a wrap skirt. He loves the proverbs on the lesso, for example: ‘Your mother is the one who gives you the love that you can never find anywhere else.’ Since lesso is typically East African, John hopes to bring art closer to Kenyan people. He glues the lesso on canvas and paints animals over it. His animals are not the usual giraffes and zebras that many artists in East Africa paint to sell to tourists, hotels and expats.

John doesn’t want to make commercial art: “Most people think I paint beautiful animals to be commercial, but I always have a message in my work. Instead of giraffes and zebras I do hyenas and vultures. Most people associate these animals with greediness and bad attitudes. But they are just playing their part in the eco-system without even affecting others. Animals are not greedy. They don’t think about killing another animal to put it in the fridge for tomorrow.”

John Kamicha 'Waiting for Tragedy'
John Kamicha ‘Waiting for Tragedy’

John is inspired by the way animals live and dreams about living like an animal in the wild as a way to escape from capitalism. John: “What fascinates me is their instinct. No thinking, just being, eating and sleeping. Living a peaceful life outside capitalism. It’s people who are destroying nature, because they don’t live in harmony with it.”

Breaking taboos

Besides criticising human behaviour via his animal paintings he loves to focus even more on taboos such as homosexuality, prostitution and questioning Christianity. The strong messages that he expresses do however get him into trouble.

John explains: “When my work is related to prostitution, homosexuality or religion, people get mad at me. But I don’t want to stick to the animal paintings for ever. I want to experiment and do research about what happens in Kenyan society. That’s what art is about for me: questioning things, not about adopting a style. I want to wake people up. Why keep quiet and pretend and act ignorantly? ”

Questioning God

During his twenties, John was a Rastafarian. He read the bible many times: a chapter a day for seven years in a row. Reading became his second nature, not only the bible but also the history of ancient cultures. The more knowledge he gained the more he started questioning life and religion in particular. “I learned that Egyptians worshiped animals in their art and made them into goddesses. I questioned everything and had more and more doubts about religion. I didn’t feel there was a God. I tried kneeling down and praying but it didn’t make sense to me anymore! So I decided to give God a break and stopped believing and going to church.” 

Poster bought from Street vendor - Jesus with Lipstick
Poster bought from Street vendor – Jesus with Lipstick

“I learned that Egyptians worshiped animals in their art and made them into goddesses. I questioned everything and had more and more doubts about religion. I didn’t feel there was a God. I tried kneeling down and praying but it didn’t make sense to me anymore! So I decided to give God a break and stopped believing and going to church.”  Since he didn’t go to church anymore he was annoyed by the loudness and intrusiveness of the worshippers. “On Sundays people are blasting their music and praying in the name of God… How am I supposed to sleep? I have no other option than to react.”

John started to think about Jesus as a human being and what kind of life he had lived. He started to question assumptions about religion but people around him were very offended and told him these things were sacred and he should not ask ‘devil’s questions.’ John’s reaction: “If God is really the master he should not be afraid of questions. If you really believe that something is the truth, then why should you be afraid to question it?” John became fascinated and wanted to explore this phenomenon in his art works.

Jesus with lipstick

'Last supper' John Kamicha
‘Last supper’ John Kamicha

As a reaction to people worshipping images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, John started to make collages of posters that he bought from street vendors. For example, he used Leonardo da Vinci’s painting ‘The Last Supper’ as a basis for a collage. John: “Nobody questions the image itself! Leonardo just came up with an image of Jesus and now everyone is copying this and believes this is what Jesus looked like. But… why does he have lipstick? Why did he choose to have twelve men as disciples? Maybe Jesus was gay! Or maybe he had just kissed a woman or drunk red wine. It’s my own fantasy, not that I am trying to tell the truth, but people should be open and discuss these things! Nobody has copyright on the bible!”

´Sex Retreat´ John Kamicha
´Sex Retreat´ John Kamicha

In his ‘Last Supper’ collage John turns Jesus into a gay celebrity surrounded by other celebrities. With his collage series he depicts Jesus and the Virgin Mary with explicit sexual connotations and unambiguous titles such as ‘Sex Retreat’, ‘You are the man I want’ and ‘the Nun’. The series of collages were exhibited in an exhibition called ‘Sex and the City’ at Alliance Française in Nairobi. John got into a lot of trouble and he was accused of blasphemy. His name was all over Facebook and in Kenyan newspapers. John: “I never saw it coming. I was so much into exploring and doing research that I even forgot that other people believe in other things. People are so concerned about religion that I didn’t even sell a single piece of work. I don’t care how other people live their life and what they want to believe… at least I spoke my mind.”

'You are the man I want' John Kamicha
‘You are the man I want’ John Kamicha

Hooked to prostitutes

After all the fuss John realised he was far from conventional or mainstream. “I think I am living in my own world. I am interested in the seamy side of life. Sex, religion, crime, drugs… the more they make it illegal, the more I am interested in it. I also like to explore and address people’s hypocrisy towards these issues.” He made a series of collages with prostitutes and policemen in which he wants to show the strength hookers have but also the fact that they are demonized. John: “It’s unbelievable how much power these street women have. Powerful politicians and priests all go to hookers. People demonize prostitutes but in secret at night they sneak out and have fun. The next day in church you see them acting all holy… How come we never demonize the men that visit prostitutes?”

'The nun' John Kamicha
‘The nun’ John Kamicha

Give me your best shot

In his series entitled ‘Give me your best shot’, John addresses the hypocrisy of policemen when they arrest and photograph prostitutes. John: “They want the best shot not because they are really interested in the profile pictures of arrested prostitutes but because they want to play with these beautiful women. They are just enjoying looking at them and even allow them to pay their fine with sexual favours. It’s all very corrupt.”  Questioning societal assumptions is an important drive in John’s art.

'Give me your best shot' John Kamicha
‘Give me your best shot’ John Kamicha

Black is the New White

Johns critique of human behaviour is also visible in his work entitled ‘Black is the New White’. He dislikes the idea that black people want to be like white people. “Black people don’t appreciate who they are. You find lots of people bleaching themselves.” John’s collage shows a white face but the typical Fulani ethnic hat and beads show the person is clearly black. The comparison is not just about physical appearance but also about behaviour. John explains: “Black people are doing things that they used to accuse colonial people of. Now they are doing it themselves! It’s like modern slavery, for example hiring servants for peanuts and focussing on self-enrichment instead of investing in the community.”  John doesn’t want to ‘preach’ but feels like he needs to get his message out into the world, to show different perspectives.

'Black is the New White' John Kamicha
‘Black is the New White’ John Kamicha

Hundred Kenyan soldiers

Currently John is working on a project in which he wants to pay a tribute to a hundred Kenyan soldiers who died fighting in proxy wars. “There are statues throughout the city centre of Nairobi of some of these soldiers but nobody knows who they are and what they went through.” John is carrying out research into these unknown soldiers and wants to create one artwork per soldier. He paints on newspapers so he can play with words and sentences that can be related to the particular soldier.

100 soldiers project / John Kamicha
100 soldiers project / John Kamicha
100 soldiers project / John Kamicha
100 soldiers project / John Kamicha

Speedy cyclist

When not creating art-works, John is speeding through Nairobi on his racing bike, either alone or with his cycling friends. He loves the adrenaline it gives. John: It’s very dangerous to cycle through Nairobi. I’ve seen friends die and that’s why I don’t like planning for the future. I love to be an animal, to live in the now because everything has side effects in life…”

John finds it very sad that the importance of art is underestimated by Kenyans. “Creativity is the future, otherwise people become robots. I call on people to join me in in the debate. Art is reflection, art is life!”

English subtitles available, click on the cc-button in the video.