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In Studio - April Kamunde
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Image Courtesy of the Artist

CAREER

April Kamunde: 'I Sold My First Painting At 16'

Learn more about the self-taught visual artist in this conversation with Anjellah Owino

BY Anjellah Owino

Jan 11, 2023, 12:41 PM

Photo of

In Studio - April Kamunde

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Image Courtesy of the Artist
You are more likely to find Ugandan, Sudanese and Egyptian art in Nairobi than you'd find Kenyan art in these countries, maybe because Nairobi has been an alternative market for most East African artists for many years. 

Well, the tide is shifting and recently Afriart Gallery (AAG) in Kampala launched the "Walking the Edge" group show (which is still on) featuring eight contemporary artists from Nairobi, Kenya including April Kamunde.

Kamunde is a self-taught visual artist based in Nairobi and recently completed her artist residency at Silhouette Projects under Afriart Gallery (AAG) in Kampala, Uganda. 

In "Walking the Edge," which runs from November 26 until January 28, curated by Lara Buchmann, April is showcasing two artworks out of the 22 pieces.

In a recent interview, April shared with me her experience at the residency, her art journey, and the inspiration behind her recent works.

AO: It’s very exciting to learn about your residency and exhibition. How was your experience at the residency?

AK: Thank you very much. I started my residency in April and it went on until the end of June. During the residency, we worked on sharpening the visual language of my artistic style under Daudi Karungi’s mentorship. I was lucky enough to see how the gallery programs work, and how to put an exhibition together. 

It was an eye-opening experience in terms of what a gallery can and cannot do as a business. Towards the end of my three months at the residency, the gallery held an open studio that gave me the opportunity to get out of my creative-introvert space, engage with art enthusiasts, and speak about my work.

Although the residency was fully funded, I had to find a way to cover bills and operational expenses back home. Fortunately, with my savings and the support of friends, I was able to make it work.

AO: How did your relationship with Afriart Gallery start?

AK: My desire to learn more about the East African art sector introduced me to AAG and their residency program, Silhouette Projects in 2020 while coming across their Instagram platforms. The gallery director, Daudi Karungi, reached out to me to inquire about my work after I liked one of their posts. We had an in-depth conversation thereafter about my practice and career history, during which he mentioned their fully-funded residency opportunity.

AO: Why was it important for you to have your works displayed in the "Walking the Edge'' group exhibition?

AK: It is a great opportunity to showcase my work not only with AAG but also an honour to be included alongside artists whom I deeply respect and whose work I have a huge appreciation for. The exhibition was a way for the AAG to showcase the works of other artists across the East African region. 

It is also a plus that the gallery has a global reach and has participated in several international art fairs, like the Miami Art Basel, the Abu Dhabi Art Fair, and Investec Cape Town, among others.
Walking the Edge Group Exhibition | Image Courtesy of Afriart Gallery, Kampala

AO: What pieces did you present for this exhibition? 

AK: "All the Women in Me Are Tired" and "Sometimes The Sun Makes It Easier To Detangle Your Thoughts" are the two pieces I presented for this exhibition. They are part of my body of work titled "Rest; the Pursuit of Peace." It is an exploration of personal and collective feelings of fatigue that I and my close circle of friends have been experiencing for the last 3–5 years.

Triggered by different factors, from the pandemic, navigating life stages, for us in our mid-30s, we are moving into more caregiving roles, our parents are ageing, and we are navigating capitalism, and so on. With this body of work, in addition to documenting rest, I also invite viewers to think about their own pockets of peace.
All the Women in Me Are Tired | April Kamunde | 2022 | Oil on canvas | 146 x 88 cm. Image Courtesy of Afriart Gallery, Kampala
AO: What influences the titling of your pieces?

AK: My titles happen organically as I paint. Sometimes, it is a summary of what I am feeling; other times, it is what I was feeling when I was taking the reference images. "All the Women in Me Are Tired" is a quote by poet Nayirrah Waheed. The title captures the feelings that I was trying to communicate, namely, exhaustion. The reason the titles are long is that they are either literal or poetic.

AO: Walk us through how you create reference images for your paintings.

AK: The reference image for "Sometimes The Sun Makes It Easier To Detangle Your Thoughts." was taken in December 2021. My brother and I were basking in the sun outside my mother’s house. He took my phone and took photos of me when I was seated under a tree. The second piece was a photo of me in the same location but taken from a slightly different point of view. It was a sunnier spot, and this is what speaks to the title.

We selected the two works to contribute to the exhibition’s vision of artists exploring liminal spaces. The two pieces include the same figure and communicate with each other in title and composition.

Through my practice, I have been using reference images. From my portraiture commission background, and now that I’ve started producing my own work. I pick a muse, take the photographs myself, and get consent to manipulate it slightly or extensively depending on what I want the end product to look like.
“Let me take a walk” | April Kamunde | Oil and pastel on canvas | 2021 | 43x36cm. Image Courtesy of the Artist
AO: When do you know that a painting is finished?

AK: I had already started working on the piece," All the Women in Me Are Tired", before going to the residency. The residency was an opportunity for me to flesh it out more, think more about my theme, and communicate with my audience more effectively.

I wasn’t happy with the direction the piece was taking, so I started on the second piece, "Sometimes The Sun Makes It Easier To Detangle Your Thoughts," and completed it at the residency but went back to Nairobi with the first one to finish it before moving on to the next one.

I have since started on others perceived to be complete by a few viewers, but I felt they needed a few more layers. I am moving away from relying on reference images and gravitating towards my message. A reference image is only a tool, the end product has to communicate my message.

AO: It looks like you have plans for a "Rest: The Pursuit of Peace" series.

AK: Definitely. My plan is to fully exhaust the theme until there are no other ways of exploring it. I want to see different ways to communicate it, from little prompts I come across to my personal reflections. I have small paintings of women's feet when they are outdoors, and I am now looking to see what the theme of rest looks like for women in their homes.
Rest I & II | April Kamunde | Oil and pastel on canvas | 2021 | 29x26cm. Image Courtesy of the Artist
AO: How is rest vital to you?

AK: It is super important. I am introverted. I regain energy from solitude, introspection, and sleep. One of the privileges of working on my time is that I can have afternoon naps.

AO: While in Kampala, did you get a chance to explore its art scene?

AK: Yes. I made my way to 32 Degrees East, an artist community centre that has a few studio spaces that will be available for rent to artists upon completion of their reconstruction, and an artist’s library stocked with an amazing selection of hard-to-find publications.

I created meaningful connections with the artist community and enrolled for a year's membership even though I was only there for three months. I recommend anyone who wants to go to Kampala make a stop there.
In Studio - April Kamunde | Image Courtesy Silhouette Projects Residency, Kampala
AO: Tell us a bit more about your journey in art, how did you kick off your art career?

AK: I am self-taught. I only studied art in high school. I experimented with oil pastels until I knew how to prime, where to buy my canvases from, and how to put together a portfolio. I sold my first painting when I was 16 years old. 

My aunt commissioned me to do a piece for her but gave me the creative freedom where the subject was concerned. I selected a picture from a Mirella Ricciardi coffee book. She took the completed piece to a gallery where she would get her framing done and asked them how much it could go for. They said Ksh. 3,000, and that is what she paid me.

From then on, she and her husband commissioned about ten other pieces in the next few years. What really built my confidence was that they used to host a lot of dinner parties with their friends and they would talk about the paintings. Their home served as my gallery of sorts. I was able to supplement my finances in university through commissioned work.

Interestingly, my initial goal was to pursue art as a side hustle. I wanted a full-time career in cosmetic chemistry after completing my degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).