Today Michael’s art can sell for as little as KSh3000 and as much as KSh100,000 and much more. The KSh3000 art are essentially canvas shopping bags beautified with his classic images of imaginary beauties who invariably have big Afros, big lips and striking expressions.
Michael has no problem selling them for so little since he sells them by the thousands and frequently posts photographs on Facebook of the proud shoppers who come all the way to his studio in Nairobi’s Industrial Area at the GoDown just to buy his bags. His bags got a big boost when award-winning 12 Years a Slave Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o carried one and thanked Michael for the bag he gave her. But the bags were big sellers way before Lupita got on his bandwagon.
This past August, Michael was making hay all over Nairobi, where he was practically as conspicuous a presence in the city as is any Opposition politician. He had three separate exhibitions that month, the first at The GoDown, where his paintings took over the entire gallery during the Nai Ni Who? Festival. That show remained up even as the exclusive Circle Art Gallery gave him a solo exhibition for the week up until August 23rd. And even though the Gallery didn’t enjoy any exclusivity about Michael or his art, a full 76 per cent of the paintings that went on display sold during that single week.
So what is it about Soi’s artistry? For one thing, he probably has the biggest name among Kenyan artists, rivalling only Peterson Kamwathi, who is much better known internationally than among ordinary Kenyan wananchi who, if they are on Facebook, regularly get treated to images of the artist’s ‘satisfied customers’ who apparently love modeling Michael’s shopping bags and having themselves and the bags appear on his Facebook page.
Another reason for Soi’s stunning success, especially in terms of sales, is that he doesn’t price himself out of the reach of ordinary people who are learning to understand Kenyan art through his creative imagery, which often relates to their own everyday lives. He has painted everything from stories about football and political intrigue to Nairobi’s night life, enjoyed by everyone from Omari, his imaginary character who successfully seduces all sorts of women, to Chinese businessmen.
Michael’s third August exhibition took place when he teamed up with Thom Ogonga to open their second collection titled “Sex in the City II “at the Alliance Francaise. Some people may have said Soi went too far, presenting his art everywhere in town almost simultaneously, but many more people appreciate his naughtiness – reflected best in both of his “Sex in the City” exhibitions.
His Circle Art show was terribly tame in comparison to his second “Sex in the City” show, in which Michael proved once again how much he loves to paint portrayals of the Nairobi night life that he and Ogonga regularly go out to see. Indeed, what he calls ‘research’ amounts to spending time in bars, strip clubs and maybe even brothels in order to get first-hand insights into what goes on in his city.
Thom Ogonga is far more low-key in his contributions to “Sex in the City”. His black and white prints and paintings are subdued but stunning in their ability to evoke women’s sensuality. His art is far less explicit than Soi’s and yet it is also a subtle complement to Soi’s outrageous images of Omari with ‘The Dutch Visa,’ ‘The American Visa’ and even ‘The British Visa’– all white women meant to symbolize Omari’s transit pass outside the country and into the woman’s European homeland.
Not everyone thinks Soi’s painting are amusing. Outrageous yes, but some people find his art scandalous and not fit for children to see. But that doesn’t disturb the artist in the least. Indeed, he clearly enjoys being chastised in public and invites his critics to ‘bring it on’ (in so many words).
If anyone missed “Sex in the City I”, let me assure them “Sex in the City II” was even more of a showcase of what some consider scandalous. In fact, anyone who appreciated SITC II might also want to get over to The GoDown which may still have Michael’s art on display and which also shows off Nairobi ‘ladies of the night’ in a variety of remarkable ways.
I, for one, feel Michael is doing a great job for the Kenyan Art World. His contribution to bringing down the misnamed ‘Kenyan Pavilion’ which nearly went up at the ongoing Venice Biennale is classic; it was largely his gift as an honest visual storyteller that exposed the travesty of Italians and Chinese posing as Kenyan artists.