Painting Kenya in yellow

Colombian-American artist Yazmany Arboleda has the plan to paint the city of Nairobi in yellow and it has already begun with houses of worship. This presents the part of artist’s public art project named “Colour in Faith”, where religious buildings like mosques and churches are painted in lemon yellow, representing the peace among all religions in Africa. From his studio in New York, Arboleda said: “The goal was to take houses of worship in Kenya and paint them yellow in the name of love. The idea from the beginning was to turn buildings into sculptures that speak to our shared humanity.”

The artist says that he chose this particular color because of its brightness and warmth, naming it “Otpimistic yellow”. He explained: “People think our photos are Photoshopped because the yellow is so saturated.” The project started back in 2015 when the Arboleda spent time in Kenyan capital for an artist residency. He’s into creating public art since 2006, and the most famous is his pink balloon project. He used it also as a symbol of peace in Kabul, Afghanistan, after the Taliban attack in 2013. There he met the founder of In Commons, Nabila Albhai. It is a civic engagement organisation. He says: “We talked about our shared humanity and our highest goals as people across religions. How do we disarm each other through beauty? And how do we do that across lines of language, religion, ethnicity and politics?”

Barack Obama’s visit to Nairobi in August 2015 was the inspiration for Arboleda. At the time, some journalists referred to dangerous nature of this, labelling eastern Africa as “a hobted terror”. Later the executive of the same broadcast network had to fly to Nairobi in order to apologize for publishing such stuff. It was a tough job to convince pastors, imams and sheiks to participate, so Arboleda had to go to top religious councils of the country to try to “obtain” the huge number of buildings for the project. He said: “We learned these councils are powerless. We had to go to pastor to pastor, priest to priest, imam to imam, sheik to sheik.”

Eventually, 14 houses were willing to be painted in yellow, but because of the complicated nature of religious bureaucracy, he had only three to begin with. For example, one mosque wanted to see the proof that the color yellow was representative of Islam and some church asked him for the financial support for participating in this project. He remembers: “At that point, I went home and cried. I was so heartbroken. We were trying to make a statement about unity and beauty but even with a shared vision, there are still limitations and challenges. Thankfully, we found people willing to collaborate in a more transparent way.”

The Jeddah Mosque Kambi was the first to jump on board, so it was painted in September 2015. Arbodela says: “The sheikh, from the very beginning, was so willing to support the cause and help connect us to other institutions. He enabled the dream.” Later he added: “In Kenya, religion is a way to control society. To ask questions and have a dialogue is incredibly powerful for these communities.”

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