Kota hasn’t had a solo or group exhibition for quite some time, certainly not since he shifted his art studio out beyond Ngong town to Kiserian. But once his former mentor Mbuthia Maina went looking for him with Circle’s Rose Jepkorir, he wasn’t difficult to find.

Nor was the treasure trove of his art, a portion of which is on display both inside and outside of the new Lavington gallery until late May.

The ‘self-taught’ artist was described by Circle’s co-founder and curator Danda Jaroljmek as a ‘maverick’, a term she realized was totally apropos to both kota and wafula since they both fit Oxford’s definition, being “a person who does not behave or think like everyone else, but who has independent, unusual opinions”.

Kota's commentary on violence.
Kota’s commentary on violence.

Signs of Kota’s quirky artistic genius came out openly in the early 1990s soon after he’d come from Homa Bay (where he studied art in school until it got pulled from the curriculum) to look for work in Nairobi. Based in Kibera where he met fellow sign writer Gomba Otieno, the two quickly teamed up and formed what became renowned as the dynamic duo of Maasai Mbili.

Both had few material resources, but each man knew he was rich in artistic skills and imagination. Thus, they decided, since there were so many sign-writers in Kibera at the time, they would distinguish themselves by other means.

“We decided to put on Maasai suka and rubber shoes, paint our hair with ochre and instead of spears, we’d carry rods with paint brushes attached at the top,” said Kota who remembers those days fondly.

Their success as a team only came to an end after Gomba got married and Kota was compelled to shift to new territory. It would eventually lead him to Kuona Trust where his talents were appreciated and recognised.

Kota Otieno pauses with two of the three Madam Watatu Kaijado pieces.
Kota Otieno pauses with two of the three Madam Watatu Kaijado pieces.

But the turning point in Kota’s experience, he says, took place while attending an artists’ workshop at Kuona conducted by Mbuthia Maina.

“It was he who told me I could use anything as art material. Anything! Not just canvas and oil or acrylic paints. He said it was called mixed media, and it was as if he gave me a green light to start looking at art and art materials in a whole new light,” Kota told me when we first met several years ago.

“Previously I used to go to expensive art supply stores and spend KSh20,000 for a little bit of canvas and a few tubes of paint,” the artist said right after the Circle show opened recently. “But now I go to a nearby junk yard, spend KSh20,000 and get a lorry-load of junk which I can use for creating my art,” he added.

Evidence of his artistic use of scrap metal takes shape at Circle in his trio of rusted stitched-metal women whose sculptures are entitled Madam Watatu Kajaido. Semi-abstract, shapely and stylized, Kota relies on his skill in stitching to give form, facial expression and life to his sculpted figures.

The three Madam watatu kaijado stitched metal pieces by  Kota otieno@circle
The three Madam watatu kaijado stitched metal pieces by Kota [email protected]

The stitching is a skill he surprisingly acquired from his father who, though not a tailor, had a flair for fashion.

“He used to buy two or three shirts, all different, and then take the pocket off of one and re-stitch it onto another one of the shirts,” Kota explained.

“He could also take a collar off of the other shirt and re-stitch it onto either one of the other two shirts,” the artist added, obviously enchanted by his father’s flare for fashion.

But the artist has taken that flare into a much wider artistic domain, although he retains the same experimental style of working with materials at hand.

This piece is called Kota works with all sorts mixed media
This piece is called Kota works with all sorts mixed media

In his father’s case, it was shirts, needle and thread. In Kota’s case, he may still use needles and (wire) thread; he may even use readily available textiles only that the textiles are now ‘mitumba’ bed sheets (among others) which he uses in place of pricey store-bought canvas.

Several of Kota’s most appealing paintings are conceived on bed-sheet ‘canvas’ and painted with what the artist called ‘auto paint’.

Forget about oils or acrylics in Kota’s case. Automobile paints are cheaper, more accessible and qualify in Kota’s mind as ‘mixed media’. They also convey the essence of the ‘maverick’ artist, which is edgy, innovative, original, resourceful, ‘making do’ with whatever’s available at the moment when the inspiration hits.

Kota's comment on hasty land deals & dealers drinking money.
Kota’s comment on hasty land deals & dealers drinking money.

Kota’s art also has political implications. For instance, his painting series entitled Lot-Tot-Pot is all about land disputes in Kajaido district where he now lives.

His series entitled Zile vitu tuliana movie tukiwa watoi saa hii ni real is all about the violence that has rocked the country in recent months, the central figure in each work is a survivor who he implicitly applauds.

But then again, some of his sculptures are merely of ‘Faces in the neighborhood’. Yet even these hand-stitched scrap-metal sculptures feel iconic, as if they reflect the exceptional artistic wizardry of what’s happening in Kenya right now.

Kota’s artworks range from KSh71,120 up to Ksh188,640 when the Kenya shilling is valued at KSh94 to the dollar.

Kota's face in the neighborhood II.
Kota’s face in the neighborhood II.