Born and raised in Kericho, Kenya in 1961, Chelenge Van Rampelberg now lives and works at the edge of the Nairobi National Park. Chelenge, regarded as one of Kenya’s first female sculptors, has no academic training in art but came into contact at an early age with the artistic practices of the local indigenous population. She works with a variety of materials: for her sculptures, she uses woods ranging from doum palm, ebony and jacaranda to avocado and sikotoi. The type of wood, and its grain, colour and texture, is of key importance, as elements that anchor Chelenge’s artistic vision in indigenous Kenya.
In this film, Chelenge talks about the influence that her childhood had on her practice. As a curious child, she would often follow the men when they
were building African huts using nails, hammers, saws and machetes which shaped her way of working later on as a sculptor, using the same tools to bring to life her visions. Raised in the Rift Valley, she reminisces on growing up as a tomboy, fetching firewood and water and in the absence of electricity, playing outside with the stars, trying to count them in their multitude, dancing across the sky. As such, her
work as an artist is tied to her memories of her childhood and nostalgia for the way she lived in the village with other children. This affection and longing for her childhood embodies her work with sentimentality, and such nostalgia remains a lodestar for how she tries to live her life today, searching for the bucolic in the quotidian.
As an artist, her practice in her words, is “always about searching. Maybe searching oneself, and I still maybe haven’t found myself.” As a sculptor, Chelenge is occupied with reading her materials, reading wood and rendering it intelligible. She says, “once I have the wood with me, I pick the story, and I use the wood to bring out that story as the writer would write the book” . Artist and writer Zihan Kassam writes: “Chelenge Van Rampelberg grants her wood permission to say what it has to. She considers its natural curvature, the flow of the grain, following its lead and letting it guide her as she carves tall, amorphous figures”.
Filmed by Matteo Lonardi, second camera man by Densu Moseti
Commissioned by NCAI,
Writing by Mukami Kuria