By Daisy Nandeche Okoti
Published June 20, 2016
Images of dark sunsets, bright sunrises, ominous dark clouds gathering in preparation for a heavy downpour, animals grazing in a clear evening sky and a dusty, windy and rusty wilderness are some of the portraits on show at Nairobi National Museum in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Aptly titled “Reflections: A Photo Odyssey”, this body of work by Byung Tae Kim, a Kenyan-based South Korean artist, examines the free spaces in nature and how these images can lodge themselves in the searching human souls.
“Nature offers us a chance to just look, take in and reflect. There is nothing like an empty space in nature; there is so much in these seemingly empty spaces which can be revealed if we take time to think, reflect and engage our souls. This is what makes me interested in capturing unique moments and holding them in one space for eternity,” says the artist who moved to Kenya from in 1990 and has been capturing images from the Maasai Mara game reserve for more than a decade. His passion and interest in art, he says, is guided by what he refers to as Oriental Philosophy.
After his initial visit to the world-famous Maasai Mara, he says, he was drawn to the images that he saw and what they represented in nature. He decided to begin capturing the images, something that has seen him visit the conservancy many times.It is these images that have been turned into portraits that are now being exhibited in the Creativity Gallery of Kenya’s house of culture between June 11 and July 31, 2016.
“Images of sunsets and sunrises in nature are the same across the universe and so is their effect on the person experiencing or looking at them. This is why I did not need to take the photographs from different locations in order to deliver my message,” says the artist who has a special relationship with Maasai Mara.
And Byung Tae Kim’s show is not just about photography and art; this is a medium of conveying fundamental messages. Symbolically.
Reflections: A Photo Odyssey “depicts not so much excursions out to the wild as it does incursions into the soul,”Byung Tae Kim says. “It shows a natural outlet for emptying oneself – a pathway to clearing the mind, cleansing the spirit and unburdening the heart. It depicts a means to let loose the imagination, light as a spore, to soar high with the wind into the azure skies and to sweep low across the wide grasslands unhindered, no place out of reach. In doing thus, one comes to see that freedom, order and comfort are inherent in nature.”
Byung Tae Kim, however, notes that there are various challenges to practising art in the country such as the fact that artistic infrastructure in the country is still underdeveloped and there is need for there to be more galleries in the country to substantially increase the chances of an artist being exhibited.
“The art is sector is a closed society of people who love creativity deeply; if an artist can appeal to these people, then they stand a better chance of growing even as this society expands and interest in art grows with time,” Byung Tae Kim says.
Martin Makau, a photographic designer present at the opening of Byung Tae Kim’s exhibition, says what the exhibition of the works demonstrates is the potential for photography in the country.
“Kenya is endowed with a lot of good landscapes and incredible natural sites that can make for good photography. This is what Byung Tae Kim tapped into and it is what other photographers should tap into as they get into the art,” Makau says.
Apart from cultural preservation and heritage perpetration, the role of art also includes an appeal to the sensibilities, something that the photography by Byung Tae Kim deliberately goes out to achieve. Nature in this collection of work has been presented as something that is calm and which invites people to take an inwards journey and then outwards to connect with nature which is presented as a big part of humanity but which, more often than not, we do not pay attention to as we go about our daily lives. The artist, through his work, argues that there is an essential role that is played by human connection with nature.
“I find this art collection very calming and transporting. Just looking at it can make you move from a bustling noisy city to a calm countryside,” says Rina Kim, a student majoring in media in Seoul.
Steve Gatitu agrees the show has a calming nature besides communicating clearly.
With this kind of appreciative reception, why do artists continue to struggle to make a living in the country? Why is it a continued struggle to get ‘the ordinary Kenyan’ to set aside money to buy art?
Photographer Martin Makau opines that this could be because, as a country, most people are still ignorant about the need to own art or even the messages that these portraits pass across.
“Few people actually understand art and this translates to low turnout in the purchase,” Makau says.
But Lydia Gatundu-Galavu,the curator at the Nairobi National Museum, disagrees with Makau’sasserting that Kenyans do not understand art. She says that art has always been a big part of Kenyan and African culture; that Africans have been practising art since time immemorial – from wood carvings to painting faces and huts with various colours and shapes to mark various occasions.
Gatundu-Galavu, however, agrees that there are low sales for art pieces.
“Art did not have a monetary value attached to it; it was priceless. Since art could be acquired through inheritance, exchange or patronage, Africans are not used to the price tag on it. It is this bit that we are gradually introducing to them,” Lydia Gatundu-Galavu explains.
Morris Keyonzo Galavu has been a photographer in the country for close to thirty years and he says that although it is taking a lot of time to get mainstreamed, photography is a profession which, like many others, has a lot of prospects if explored. However, he insists that a successful photography career goes beyond just picking up the camera and clicking away.
Kwon Young-Dae, the Ambassador of South Korea to Kenya, presided on the opening of Reflections: A Photo Odyssey exhibition on June 11, 2016 from 4:00 PM. The show runs daily, 8:30 AM-5:30 PM, in the Creativity Gallery till July 31. 2016.