“I am Kenya’s first woman sculptress,” Chelenge says, as we step through a low, thatch-roof verandah and into her light-filled home studio— a sprawling bungalow where rooms flow effortlessly into one another, like a river. The walls are an immaculate whitewash and the cement screed floor is painted with red oxide, creating a perfect backdrop for Chelenge Van Rampelberg’s rich collection of paintings, and her own wooden sculptures—some nearly touching the ceiling, others at eye level.
As we meander among the sculptures I am struck by the expressions on the carvings – alive, serene, defiant. Some lips are upturned into small smiles. Many of the figures are missing something… a breast, an arm, both legs …
“What’s up with the disabilities?” I ask Chelenge, and spark off a monologue.
“I believe the ugliest thing in the world is the most beautiful.
“See this cripple here? He’s too, can give a nice, strong hug to this beautiful girl he loves.
The sculpture, in jacaranda wood, has two figures locked in an embrace, the woman standing, and the man positioned lower, on account of his missing leg.
“The idea that disabled people are less than anyone else is total bullshit,”
“See this other one… she has just one leg, but she’s human, just like anyone else.
“And this one is me!” She points at an evocative, jet black sculpture with chunky dreadlocks and piercing eyes.
“Take me or leave me. See the way I turn my back… and my eyes – they are beautiful!”
Where did this solidarity with people who don’t conform to prevailing societal definition of “normal”, or “beautiful” come from, I ask.
“My art is not academic… it comes from a very deep place,” Chelenge says, pressing all her fingertips at her heart centre.
Chelenge tells me a story from her early childhood on a farm in Nakuru. Their neighbour’s wife was pregnant and everyone was waiting excitedly for the new arrival, but after the baby was born everything suddenly went quiet. The woman’s husband screened off their farm with maize stover (known locally as mabebe), and nobody was allowed to visit the mother and her new baby.
Curiosity overcame Chelenge and her little friends, and one day they went to the fence, lifted the stover screen and snuck a look.
“It was a sunny afternoon… the mother was washing her clothes and her baby was lying on a lesso next to her. The baby was severely deformed. That was the reason she had been hidden away.
At the sight, “Me and my friends ran off – we were so scared. Yet this baby was a human being just like you and me…That image stayed with me.”
Chelenge started making art in the early 1990s, soon after her last-born, the glass artist Naomi van Rampelberg, started school. She simply bought a fistful of canvases, wall paints and some brushes and started painting. “I didn’t even prime the canvases – I had no training.”
Chelenge took that first collection to Gallery Watatu, where Ruth Schaffner, the gallery’s co-founder, had invited international delegates preparing for the Beijing Women’s Summit, 1995. The paintings sold out instantly, and Chelenge used the proceeds from that show to buy the plot of land on which she currently lives.
She taught herself wood carving a few years later and this became her life’s passion, she and the wood “speaking and agreeing” on what to create.
Many of the themes for Chelenge’s sculptures emanate directly from her life experiences: as a girl growing up on the farm, fetching water from the river in earthen vessels, cooking and eating together, the community culture and taboos of the time, motherhood, and women’s incessant and seldom acknowledged labour.
Just like her early paintings, Chelenge’s wood sculptures were collected internationally before anyone in Kenya knew her name. Several of her sculptures were recently shown at the Royal Academy of Arts, alongside those of Kenyan art luminaries Wangechi Mutu and Magdalene Odundo DBE. This big deal hardly caused a ripple in Kenya.
She continues to sculpt, paint, and bead fabric as a hobby, from memory (she watched women beaders in her childhood.)
The shadows are lengthening. Whatsapp tells me a close relative has just died. I have to leave. Chelenge escorts me – driving ahead over the stones, through the tunnel, along the SGR railroad, a sharp right and around the roundabout and finally onto a murram road where we finally see some cars and boda bodas, and where google’s sense of direction—and my own—is more secure.
That people with disabilities deserve our love, respect and support is etched into my mind as I drive into the starless Nairobi night.
Chelenge Van Rampelberg’s show,The Long Way Home: Retrospective, opens Nov 2, 2023 at NCAI, Rosslyn Riviera, Nairobi.