Jua Kali Art in Lamu, Kenya

My graduate research in art history entailed extensive fieldwork in Kenya, where I interviewed both creators and consumers of jua kali art to analyze the cultural and socioeconomic dynamics of this emerging genre of contemporary art. Jua kali is a Swahili phrase that means “hot sun” and is used to refer to artists and workers of the informal sector. Since the term was first coined in the 1970s, jua kali has dominated policy discussions as a viable solution to poverty and unemployment, but it is only recently that the aesthetic merits and cultural significance of jua kali artwork has begun to be considered by Western scholars. My research in Kenya shows that despite occupying the margins of formal art venues, informal sector artists are far from marginally creative. In its active cross-pollination of artistic ideas, jua kali art is a metaphor for the complex interethnic relations of postcolonial Africa and the cultural exchanges that occur between Western tourists and non-Western artists.

Employing an ethnographic approach, my MA thesis focuses on one group of artists on the island of Lamu—the Culture Boyz, as they call themselves. The thesis analyzes this informally organized arts collective as a case study of non-Western artists who primarily sell their work to Western tourists. Although tourist art was once disparaged within the discipline of art history, analyses of the way culture is commoditized in touristic settings have become significant topics more recently. The importance of ethnicity to Lamu’s informal sector artists and the ways that ethnic identity is expressed visually in their artwork offers a unique approach to analyzing processes of cultural commoditization. After completing my MA, I later published the thesis as a book, Art, Culture and Tourism on an Indian Ocean Island: An Ethnographic Study of Jua Kali Artists in Lamu, Kenya.

The Culture Boyz are a loosely organized group of artists whose primary audience is tourists. They often sell their work at makeshift display spaces along the busy seafront and Lamu's narrow roads. Hence, the term jua kali artists because they work outside under the hot sun.

The Culture Boyz employ a technique they call "copy right" (as in to copy correctly) to reproduce images. As self-proclaimed Rastas, the artists often reproduce heavily copyrighted imagery of reggae musicians.

Master fundi wa nazi (coconut craftsman) Murage in the center teaches two of his apprentices the arduous work of handcarving coconut shells.

An intricately carved bowl made by Murage.