Growing up, Joseph ‘Bertiers’ Mbatia used to be known as a cheeky trouble maker, a boy who barely made it through school because he discovered his creative calling at a very early age.
Fortunately, he had a few teachers who appreciated his artistic talent and nurtured his obvious potential by giving him coloured pencils, paper and occasionally even paints. Otherwise, he never meant to be defiant. He just knew he loved to draw and got inspired by everything around him, from the lions onSimba Unga and Simba Chai packets to Safari Rally cars to wall paintings he’d see outside the butcheries, bars and beauty salons painted by the renowned ‘bar artist’ the late DBC Ringo Arts.
“At home I’d be beaten by my mum whenever she caught me drawing instead of doing my homework, and at school I had one Headmistress [Wanjiku] who used to pinch my ears every time she found me drawing in class,” said Mbatia. But the beatings didn’t deter him. Instead, he even found inspiration and even humour in the pain. “After she’d let go of my ears, I’d go straight back to drawing only then I’d make fun of her pinching me.”
Ever the humourist who could make fun out of the most painful personal experiences, Mbatia recalls how he even got the name ‘Bertiers’ as a sort of joke. “Finding a nickname for yourself was what all teenage boys at my [Mutu-ini High] school did, so I just played around with names until I came up with Bertiers, which lots of people tell me sounds French.”
Ironically, his name would come in handy years later when he won his first major award given as a collaborative prize by both French and German Cultural Institutes in 2006. “They were commemorating 50 years since the two countries officially made peace [after World War 2]”, he recalled. The prize included a grand tour of the two European countries where he was taken all round to art galleries, museums and artists’ studies.
“The same year I was number eight out of the top ten award-winning artists at Dak’Art in Senegal,” he said noting the accolade was meant to include trips to Dakar and southern France where he’d been given a two month art residence. But a nearly fatal accident prevented him from taking either trip.
Nonetheless, later that same year, Mbatia would become an even more seasoned globe-trotter, traveling first to Scandinavia where he and his art would be part of the ‘Africa Now’ mobile art exhibition that went from Denmark to Norway and Finland.But in between he made it to the States where he had another successful exhibition in Seattle, Washington. The trip to the US was especially significant to Mbatia since his paintings had been regularly exhibited and sold out of a Los Angeles gallery ever since he met the American art dealer Ernie Wolfe outside the Wasafiri Hotel in Dagoretti back in the early 1980s.
‘The Wasafiri was actually where I had my first exhibition,” said Mbatia who’d started hanging his storytelling-style of paintings up at the popular tea ‘joint’ soon after he’d completed a three year graphic design course at the YMCA Craft Training Centre.“I used to paint on old metallic plates after I’d scrap off the original Malaraquin ads; then I’d hang them anonymously and sit in a corner at the Hotel and listen to what people had to say about them,” he said, indirectly confirming that his style of visual storytelling has elicited curiosity and public commentaries ever since he began taking his art into the public domain.
He’d always assumed the public didn’t know who the artist was; but one day as he was coming home from a day’s work at Chibuku (where he’d been employed as a graphic designer in 1985), he saw a huge crowd near the hotel. “Once I got near, people started shouting, ‘There he is, there’s the guy.’ Then I saw a tall white man emerge from the crowd, stretch out his hand to me and introduce himself.”His name was Ernie Wolfe, the California art dealer who bought up all of Mbatia’s metal-plate paintings that day and launched a relationship that (despite having its ups and downs) would last up to this day.
Ernie Wolfe is the first serious art collector to appreciate Bertiers’ brilliance and begin commissioning him to create series of paintings around a specific theme, after which the artist would ship them to the US.“By today’s standards, people might say he paid me peanuts, but at the time I was grateful to have that steady income,” the artist said. “My wife always reminds me that is what enabled us to buy our land [near Dagoretti] and build our first [mabati] house.”
The other thing that Wolfe gave to Bertiers was advice on what to paint. “He liked my style of painting, but as I was relating to local topics that struck a chord among Kenyans, he asked me to broaden my perspective so my art could relate to a more international audience.”Advising Bertiers to start reading Newsweek and Time magazine as one of the ways he could broaden his painterly perspective, the artist credits Wolfe for suggesting he paint about global topics, everything from the first Iraq War to the OJ Simpson and Monica Lewinski sagas to specific events unfolding in Europe and Asia. “For a time, I knew more about international events than local ones,” he confessed.
Nonetheless, despite his painting primarily for an American clientele, Mbatia’s art and sign-drawing skills were still in great demand locally. “I was still painting [wall or bar art] in butcheries and beauty salons, much like DBC Ringo had done.” It was the ‘bar art’ that one German (working for GTZ) saw and subsequently sought out Mbatia, encouraging him to hold an exhibition of his art at Goethe Institute. “Ast Guido is the one who helped me get my first show at Goethe in 1992,” said the artist who added his life hasn’t been the same since then.
Ernie apparently wasn’t happy about Mbatia’s branching out into new terrains, especially as it meant he no longer had an exclusive claim to sales of the artist’s work. But Mbatia was bound to broaden his scope of expression, which in a sense is what Wolfe had originally encouraged him to do.
Today, Mbatia’s art can be seen all over Kenya, in parts of Africa (Senegal and Tanzania) as well as internationally. Most recently his paintings have been on display at Alliance Francaise, Nairobi National Museum and the Nairobi Art Fair where his booth won the prize for being the second best-attended: his monumental painting entitled Untold Story attracted huge crowds both at the Sarit Centre and at Alliance where it was first unveiled at exhibition affiliated with the book launch of Creating Contemporary African Art. But ultimately, Mbatia’s amazingly intricate scrap metal sculptures may be the art that he will be best remembered for.
Like his social realist paintings, his sculptures also capture iconic images straight out of Kenyan everyday life. And as with his paintings, he injects heavy doses of humour into his works, all of which seem to capture his subjects while they are animated, as if frozen in motion.
The extraordinary fact about his scrap-metal characters is that he only learned how to weld a few years back. “The man who came to weld the windows of our [new stone] house inspired me to learn to do it myself,” he said. Now he’s teaching young men and women who he recruits to join his youth group, DARTS which is short for Discovering Artistic Talents.“In the same way that my talents were ‘discovered’ and nurtured by others, I want to do the same for young Kenyans who have artistic talent but need to be ‘discovered’ just as I was,” Mbatia said.