Johnny Appleseed had his apple trees, Saint Nicholas had his secret gifts, and Columbian-American artist Yazmany Arboleda has his art. A novel concept is sweeping through the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and doing more than just surprising onlookers. Arboleda is bringing hope and joy to the city of over 3 million, and he’s doing it in a big and colorful way.
It’s not unusual to find brightly-colored buildings in cities around the equator. However, the vibrant shade Arboleda chose for his newest art installation is nicknamed “optimistic yellow.” It is an eye-catching and completely unforgettable hue. He’s calling his latest project “Colour in Faith.” It’s an effort to unify the people of the churches and mosques of West Africa, serving as a visual projection of their similarities and peaceful co-existence. He feels that by washing the houses of worship in the unmistakably sunny yellow it will “speak to our shared humanity.” Especially it seems for the two most volatile groups in Nairobi, Christians and Muslims.
Nairobi is one of the largest multicultural metropolises in the area. The most popular religion in the city is Christianity (82.6%), followed by Islam (11.1%). There are several famous places of worship in the city, including All Saints Cathedral, Ismaili Jamat Khana, Cathedral Basilica of the Holy Family, and the Jamia Mosque. A smaller number of citizens follow Baha’i, Buddhism, Hinduism, and a plethora of various traditional African religions.
Arboleda was already famous for his 2013 neon pink “We Believe in Balloons” project in Kabul, a town torn apart by Taliban attacks and in-fighting. His goal at the time was to show solidarity with the oppressed women of the country since their Parliament was refusing to outlaw violence against women, and to also spread happiness to the troubled people.
He became inspired by an August 2015 CNN headline about the city being a “hotbed of terror,” so he began painting the first of what will be an ongoing display of solidarity of peace, at the Jeddah Mosque in Kambi. Two months later, in November 2015, Pope Francis visited Nairobi and told leaders that open inter-faith conversations were necessary to ensure the well-being and safety of their youth. Radicalization is, and continues to be, a very real fear for citizens. This premise resonated with fellow spiritual leaders, who endorsed his heartfelt sentiment. Together, they enforced the movement already in motion, thanks to the work of Arboleda and the Kenyan people, of unifying the West African people with peace and tolerance.
In the beginning, Arboleda encountered some resistance to his project, due mainly to church bureaucracy. However, he now has several places of worship which have allowed his dozens of devoted volunteers to coat their buildings in the paint donated by Uganda’s Sandolin paint company. His project is already spreading to nearby Mombasa and will perhaps spread to more cities. He plans on furthering this permanent project by erecting a monument in Nairobi titled “Open Palm Park,” which will also be bathed in his signature cheerfully optimistic color. Much like those that came before him, his gift to humanity will live in on in the hearts of the people he’s touched through his art.