Both based at The GoDown Art Centre, neither have much academic training in the arts, only the desire to express their innate creativity and the skills they have picked up along the way.
Muthoka went back to school after fulfilling her parents’ dream, now to get another degree in graphic design, and Magina is even more of a self-taught artist. His first artistic inspiration came from all the glossy magazines his journalist father, the late Magina Magina, used to bring home before both his parents passed on when he was ten.
Yet both dared to take a great leap into the unknown, first by renting a studio at The GoDown and then getting to work on the basis of what they both believe is one of the best decisions each has ever made – becoming an artist with the freedom to express his and her feelings, thoughts and perspectives on life.
Does this say something about the opportunities that young Kenyans are seeing opening up in the visual arts? Are they in fact part of a trend in which we are witnessing young people wanting to express themselves artistically rather than merely becoming a businessman or woman? Or is it that Kenyans are seeing the potential for actually earning a good living as an artist, a notion that was unthinkable to most Kenyans just a few years ago.
I would say all of the above is true. Certainly this is true of Magina, who has been doing business literally since he was ten years old, when he went to work selling mitumba (second-hand clothes) with the auntie who took him in after his parents died. Fortunately, another auntie helped to pay his school fees at Lake Nakuru Secondary, where he did well, and after that he paid his own way to become a CPA. His first employer paid his way to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Commerce from one of Kenya’s best Business school at Strathmore University.
From there, Magina could have picked his employer – and he did fulfill his obligations to his former boss, working two years as a company accountant – “But I felt there was a gap in my life,” said Magina, who admits that he was bored doing the same thing day in and day out. “I felt society needed more ‘creatives’,” he added.
So once he made the move to GoDown, he hasn’t stopped drawing and painting portraits like the old man from his home village of Rwambwa in Siaya County. What’s more, he’s started an ambitious painting project involving child labor that he’s calling ‘The Tumaini Revolution.’ “I feel children like these need more exposure to creativity, since it can open their minds to untold possibilities,” he added.
Gloria Muthoka went to some of the best schools in Kenya, first Maryhill School in Thika, then USIU where she initially studied psychology and counseling. She got jobs working with victims of torture and then with refugees, both well-paying work. But she, like Jeffie, felt like something was missing in her life.
Her course in graphic design didn’t quite do the trick either, but now she’s happy to paint full-time. Like Jeffie she never took a course in fine art, apart from Art & Crafts in primary school. But one couldn’t tell from the look of her art. Her series on sunflowers is stunning; her portrait of a coffee plantation worker is also interesting, especially her use of light and lush color and delicate configuration of coffee branches.
Perhaps the most intriguing work in her studio is an enigmatic interpretation of an African folk tale about a snake and a tortoise. The painting is almost self-abstract since the creatures are not instantly identifiable, which means the work requires a second and third look.
The GoDown is one of several art centres in Nairobi that are giving aspiring young Kenyan artists space to explore their creativity in tangible terms. There’s Kuona Trust, Paa Ya Paa and Bobea Art Centres, among others. The two newest spaces where one will find artists working full time are the Railway Museum Studio and the Dust Depot, also at the old Railways Museum.
Part of the advantage of working at such venues is that there are veteran artists around who can either serve as mentors, like Elimo Njau at Paa ya Paa, or as examples of what successful artists can look like. One such example is Michael Soi, who currently has an awesome solo exhibition in the GoDown Gallery where he fills all the walls with colorful (and often ‘off color’) images of Nairobi’s day and night life. His exhibition will be up for the rest of the month.