The Jua Kali of Kenya are the real MacGyver, having mastered the art of recycling to solve any problem. “Jua Kali” is Swahili for “fierce sun,” referring to the rays beating down from above. Under the equatorial sun, the Jua Kali work. A class of traveling peddlers and artisans, their name has become the Kenyan word for “git er done,” referring to their ability to fix or so nearly anything upon request. Their innovative approach stems from their ability to transform the environment to meet their needs.
Working in the slum districts of Nairobi, the Jua Kali are among the most creative people on earth. They can fix anything, from a leak in your car to a tear in your flip flops. They are masters of jury-rigging, and solving the immediate problem. With more than half a million self-employed Jua Kali in Nairobi, their business model provides insight into the law of supply and demand. There are no legal contracts, no warranties, and no guarantees, but with rock bottom prices, the opportunity is, for many, too good to pass up.
Although “Jua Kali” has come to take on a pejorative connotation for goods and products of inferior quality, Nairobi-born artist Tahir Carl Karmali celebrates their brilliant, innovative spirit in Tahir Carl Karmali: Jua Kali, now on view at United Photo Industries, Brooklyn, now through March 26, 2016. His new series of portraits embraces the spirit of their work, integrating the environment into the subject. By fusing the portrait and landscape so that they are one, Karmali expands our understanding of identity by reinforcing the way in which our lives are shaped by our actions.
Karmali’s work recalls the words of Aristotle, who observed, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” By focusing his attention on the Jua Kali, Karmali reminds us that though we often look, we rarely see. With these portraits, we are given a new understanding of a class of people that are otherwise overlooked. The brilliance of his portraits is the way in which they marry concept with content. Technical components, computer circuit boards and mechanical parts are interwoven with the heads of the portrayed to form an anatomic unit, standing for the innermost world of thought. Karmali also took pictures of garbage pieces to create his collages, combining them spontaneously with photos of the craftsmen and in so honoring the Jua Kali style.
Karmali observes, “I like to be playful when creating, combining ideas and thoughts from my experiences. My work is a result of experimenting with my photographic, collage and painting practice. By building a process for each project I make, allows me to explore materials and push my understanding of photography. With these tools I try to visually express concepts and narratives around these mediums.”
The result is a return to the beginning, where it all began, each Creator their own manifestation of the “fierce sun.”
All photographs: Untitled, Jua Kali. © Tahir Carl Karmali. Courtesy of United Photo Industries.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.