Informal settlements in the Kenyan capital are experiencing a new wave of artistic activity. Nairobi’s settlements are some of the largest in Africa, accommodating a high percentage of the city’s total population. Media portrayals of these habitations are normally dominated by images of abject poverty and rarely recognise that the chaotic constructions which typify these areas can act as a source of artistic inspiration for their inhabitants.
Nairobi’s slums run on a functioning informal economy and have their own bars, restaurants, pharmacies, cinemas and street traders like any other neighbourhood. At the centre of these communities is a vibrant creativity and a visually evident wealth of artistic talent. This can be found in the huge mural in the Mathare slum created by graffiti artist Bankslave (Kevin Esendi), or in the performing arts programmes run by Sarakasi trust and the studio photography sessions held by Peter Olendo.
Recently, foreign artists have been drawn to Nairobi’s settlements by this exciting culture. JR, a French artist who won the TED prize in 2010, worked in Kibera transforming its landscape with larger than life portraits of slum-dwellers. In Matahre, American photographer Lana Wong initiated the photography project "Shootback", which encouraged children from the slum to capture images from their everyday lives using disposable cameras. A talented team from Mathare is running a similar initiative called "Slum TV", which films Matahre inhabitants going about their daily business and later presents the footage to the whole community.
With an increase of wasani (artists) operating within Nairobi’s slums, many have come together to form collectives and establish art centres. One such group is Kibera’s "Maasai Mbili", whose name in Swahili means “the two Maasai”. The Maasai Mbili Art Centre was started in 2001 by Otieno Gomba and Otieno Kota, neither of whom are actually Maasai. The name refers to a time when the two artists would dress as Maasai to attract customers to their sign-writing business. Saving their earnings, these two artists rented a small two-storey building in Kibera and created a new art space, which became the "Maasia Mbili Art Centre". The studio attracted many other artists from Kibera who came to learn from one another. Today around ten artists use the studio as a space for their painting and sculpting.
The majority of artists from the Maasai Mbili Art Centre used to paint shop signs in the settlement for a living. None of the artists have had any formal academic training; instead they learnt their skills through entrepreneurial activity, primary school art lessons and workshops. The group describe their work as “ghetto art” and use Kibera’s unique visual characteristics as their main source of inspiration. Despite this shared mandate, each artist has his own individual technique and style.
Artist Otieno Kennedy Rabala used to paint recreationally at school, though after moving to Nairobi he realised that his paintings could become a means of income. Working as a security guard at Gallery Watatu, Nairobis leading and longest-running commercial gallery, he sold some of his first paintings to the gallery owner Ruth Schafner. Residing in Kibera, Rabala says his paintings are designed to document everyday occurrences: “The things that are happening in Kibera make me want to paint the ghetto, the Kibera life, the slum life.” For example, one of his paintings illustrates the methods residents have been known to use to voice their grievances in Kibera, such as the uprooting of the railway line. Rabala explains, “this happens when there is chaos with the government...this is how people discipline the government in Kenya".
Many artists from the Maasai Mbili Art Centre incorporate text within their paintings, in a manner that is reminiscent of their work as sign-writers. Much of the text, while clearly identifiable, is deliberately misspelt. Artist Wycliffe Opondo, explains how this relates to a sign-writers business deal with a customer. A customer would prescribe details of the text he wanted on his signs or walls, which the artist would replicate, even if the texts were misspelt. The language of the ‘boss’, as Wycliffe calls it, adds a degree of satirical humour, as it playfully mocks the customer’s mistake. He uses this technique in his depiction of the tussle between Kenya and Uganda over the small island, Migingo, in Lake Victoria. The painting is of a fish accompanied by the text ‘THE WOTA IS YUAS, BUT THE FIS IS MINE" - in 2009, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, conceded that the island was in Kenya, but that the surrounding waters through which the island is accessed belonged to Uganda. The fish and the misspelt caption mock the stupidity and obtuseness of Museveni’s sentiment.
Many of the artists paint on stretched canvases or sheets which are intended for display on the walls of galleries or homes. Still, they prime their canvasses with paint mixed with rubble, providing a textured surface similar to that of the walls of Kibera’s settlement. Artist George (Ashiff) Malamba explains this as "bringing the streets to the gallery and the gallery to the streets".
The Maasai Mbili artists are a strong force in Kibera, and are committed to providing and implementing community projects for its residents. One notable community project, “Art for Peace”, was set up in response to the political violence that tore through Kenya in 2008. This venture aimed to heal and restore community values through shared artistic projects. Particularly, workshops were set up for children from Kibera which entailed painting ruins left over from the violence, printing Peace T-shirts and painting a huge "peace" mural along Kibera Drive.
The Maasai Mbili Art Centre is the coming together of a creative initiative and a desire to succeed. The artists have exhibited their work widely in Nairobi as well as other parts of Africa and Europe. All the artists have unique stories to tell but their work shares an urban identity which reflects their previous work on the street as sign-writers and the informal settlements in which they live. The diverse audience encountering Maasai Mbili’s work has provoked a plethora of interpretations about how they have handled the dynamic communication between the artist and his audience. Their paintings provide an engaged and sometimes humorous account of everyday life in Nairobi’s settlements, as well as an attentive view on national and global issues.
The Maasai Mbili artists can be contacted on their Facebook page where they have more of their work on show.
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