Last summer, a number of houses of worship in Nairobi gleamed yellow, with their walls freshly painted in sunshiny shades. This fall, more religious institutions in the Kenyan capital as well as in Mombasa will shine, standing out vividly against the otherwise normal landscape. The mass redecorations are part of Color in Faith, a long and ongoing public art project to celebrate the nation’s religious pluralism by inviting Kenyans to transform the exteriors of their local mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues so they are the same bright color.
Kenya, as the project’s organizer Yazmany Arboleda said, is often seen by the rest of the world as simply an epicenter of growing religious radicalism. Last year, prior to Obama’s visit to the country, CNN unfortunately but memorably referred to it as a “hotbed of terror,” stirring backlash from Kenyans who later received an in-person apology from the news network’s executive vice president.
“This [attitude] is particularly sad because Kenya has had a long established culture of religious acceptance, tolerance, accommodation and exchange,” Arboleda told Hyperallergic. “These cultures are being undermined by an infusion of hardline interpretations of faith and the deepening of a global identity based on media stories about division, terrorist attacks, and insecurity. The risk is a cultural confusion that would have agents of insecurity succeed in dividing these societies.” Yellow, he said, is simply a color that suggests optimism; we tend to associated it with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy — universal values instantly understood or felt from a single glance of the hue.
Color in Faith began last year — prior to CNN’s blip — when Arboleda, a Colombian-American artist based in New York City was in Nairobi for a residency. With the help of the organization In Commons, he started reaching out to individual pastors, priests, sheiks, and imams to receive permission to permanently color the walls of their religious homes. Obstacles naturally arose, with Arboleda receiving many rejections, but approval finally arrived from the imam of the decade-old Jeddah Mosque Kambi, followed by the leaders of the 20-year-old Holy Trinity ACK Parish Kibera and BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Hindu temple built in 2001. Civilians eagerly offered themselves as painters, and as many as 70 volunteers at a time worked together, all coming from various religious communities and often painting a building they would typically not frequent.
“One of the premises of our art is that by working together — putting a paintbrush to a wall — with people who believe differently than one does, one builds bridges of understanding,” Arboleda said. “You get to meet people, converse with them, and laugh with them. In the process you often find out that everyone that is there painting with you is more alike than different from you.”
Last September, Nairobi’s Circle Art Gallery hosted an exhibition to chronicle the progress of Color in Faith, featuring photographs of the buildings as well as Arboleda’s original concept drawings. Back then, 14 buildings across Nairobi had agreed to participate, but a majority eventually pulled out due to bureaucratic reasons. Arboleda has since secured other houses of worship willing to transform their walls into public “expressions of common acceptance and tolerance,” as he described, but he also emphasized that the project should not be tied to just Kenya.
“As places of historic pluralism, these landmarks will be highlighted as a point of reference for what is possible elsewhere in the world,” Arboleda said.