• Can you tell me a bit about your life before you and Kota started Maasai Mbili?

Before I met Kota I was doing sign painting. I had met this guy who was a very famous sign writer around Kibera.  I started working with him, doing an apprenticeship and ended up being a sign writer as well. After school, around 1994, I was invited to join Kenya polytechnic college to study graphic design. But at that time I couldn’t afford it so after skylarking for a while, doing this and that, I ended up with this guy and the sign writing. He is no longer in Kibera, but I would love to know what he is up to.  

 

  • Is sign writing still alive in Kibera and do you still continue with the practice?

Yeah it is still around. But it is starting to get spoilt by the technology. These hand written things are lovely to me, but now the print is taking over. A lot of people see prints being cheaper, so they go for the cheap option. But we still do sign painting here, people bring us stuff or ask us to do their signs.

Read: Qhama Maswana: Painting the African Heritage and Cultures

  • In your studio work what themes and issues do you deal with?

There are so many themes. I paint a lot about social and political issues. What I like most is the environment that I am working in [Kibera], it gives me a lot of inspiration.  

Otieno Gomba

Workaholic – painting by Otieno Gomba

  • The function of sign painting is to attract people to a business or to inform them of what the business has to offer. But your studio art has many different meanings, it has a different purpose to your sign writing. How do you see the role of your studio art?

Maybe it is to show what is coming out of Kibera, to show it is happening, it is alive. I like to show the vibrancy of Kibera, its humorous side. I like to show issues that are more of humour because they tend to bring back life and that is why I like to work with vibrant colours. And then there is this issue of recycling and using the environment around you. With Kibera being a slum there are so many options, found materials, iron sheets, the walls, buildings or ruins.

  • You did a series incorporating the use of found and discarded souls from shoes. Can you tell me a bit about this?

I called this series ‘Save Our Souls’. I used to walk around the streets, and you could find so many used shoe souls, just thrown away. For me they represented human souls. Using shoe souls in my work it is like bringing the human soul back to life. I believe that every time a soul, whether it is a lost soul, an abused soul, or whatever, gets destroyed it should have a chance of a new life or beginning.   

Otieno Gomba

Painting by Otieno Gomba

  • You have been involved in many community outreach projects, such as ‘art4peace’ after the post-election violence, art classes for children here in the studio and even as far afield as Denmark with the ‘Street Art on the Run’ project. What is it about art, as a medium or tool, which enables it to be used so well in such projects?

I think it is the only medium which has no boundaries. It can be used to communicate to people from all different backgrounds and circumstances. With art you are free to express yourself. It is a great way to be able to share thoughts and ideas. With art you also get this power, this bonding, and this interaction. Community art projects inspire.  You meet different kinds of people, they all have different lifestyles, they all have different cultures, and it is through art you can share this.  I guess what I am saying is that art has many different roles at different times. For example, you mentioned the ‘art4peace’ project.  When it was the post-election violence I came to my studio and looked at my pieces and I felt I am cheating the world. Inside here [The Maasai Mbili Art Centre] it was calm and peaceful.  But outside there were ruins, people angry, kids traumatised. So at that time we used art as a healing tool.

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Otieno Gomba

Gomba in his Studio

  • Does the local community in Kibera have an interest in contemporary art

Yeah, we have a bunch of followers from Kibera, who pop by the studio to see what we are doing.  In Kenya not everyone goes to galleries so you have to have art in your community, you cannot deny art to someone. When you base your art as purely commercial then it will go the business way. If you base your art like something that is supposed to be interactive and if it involves the community then you are open. It [The Maasai Mbili Art Centre] becomes like a resource centre, where people can come and talk about issues and be part of a community. Also, I think that working with children from Kibera on various art projects, or by just giving them a space to come and do art, has really contributed to changing the perception of artists that parents and community members had about us and artists in general. Even the perception that art is not a profession has changed. Right now if I told someone that I was an artists they would look at me the same way as if I had told them I was a teacher. The work of Maasai Mbili has been a big part of that in Kibera. 

  • What can we expect of Gomba in the coming year’/s is there anything you are particularly working on?

I’m usually looking for inspiration, talking with friends. As well as painting I also do fashion, we have an ongoing project called Chokora Wear – we have had three seasons now. I also like to get involved in music and then sometimes I also get to work in schools -basically anything that revolves around art. Art has always been a part of me and it always will.

Otieno Gomba

Gomba in his Studio

 

Otieno Gomba

Painting by Otieno Goma

 

Otieno Gomba

Save Our Souls – Otieno Gomba

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