Jua kali – a term that translates to “fierce sun” in Swahili – is an expression that defines the informal trade areas in Kenya. Based on an intricate, self-organizing community of largely informally trained mechanics, welder and woodworkers, among others, it is a fascinating phenomenon born out of necessity in an informal context.
While jua kali services are perceived as low class or substandard, they create income for a large percentage of Kenyans. Reflecting on the term, photographer and artist Tahir Carl Karmali, found-object artist Dennis Muraguri and glass master Tonney Mugo have created the large-scale, sculptural installation Jua Kali City, which comprises two cogs, one larger than the other. The bigger cog represents the “formal” economy, featuring a stylized city skyline composed with steel, wood, glass, and computer parts. It appears glitzy and polished from a distance, but rough and flimsy on a closer look. The smaller cog, representing the informal sector, is made of 3D models in corrugated steel, scrap metal and wood – materials commonly used within the jua kali community. “These two cogs represent function, where one of them shows a slum-like dwelling and the other a glass city – depicting how the informal and formal sector rely on each other to survive,” says Karmali. “Without the resourcefulness and innovation of the informal sector, the ‘glass’ city or formalized economy would not be able to move.”