Art

Women artists thriving in ‘wasteland’

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At Warembo Wasanii art studio that is made from junk material in Nairobi. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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Summary

  • Joan Otieno is bold. She is an artist who cannot be held back from pursuing her work, however many obstacles she faces. And there have been many.
  • There is the stepfather who insisted she become an accountant despite her doing art from primary school through secondary.
  • There is her decision to be a housemaid in Nairobi instead of attending university because her sole goal was to practise art.
  • Then when she found Dust Depo Art Centre, she violated a rule that compelled artists to leave the studio by dusk. That got her the boot.

Joan Otieno is bold. She is an artist who cannot be held back from pursuing her work, however many obstacles she faces. And there have been many.

There is the stepfather who insisted she become an accountant despite her doing art from primary school through secondary.

There is her decision to be a housemaid in Nairobi instead of attending university because her sole goal was to practise art.

Then when she found Dust Depo Art Centre, she violated a rule that compelled artists to leave the studio by dusk. That got her the boot.

Her struggles have gotten worse since then. But she rarely complains. Instead, the artist whose specialty is transforming trash (especially plastic bags) into artistic ‘treasures’ chose to share her skills with one of the most vulnerable groups, namely girls.

That’s how Warembo Wasanii came into being in 2018.

“Officially we are licensed as a community-based organisation,” says Joan from her newest base of artistic operation at Ngomongo village in Korogocho ward, deep in Nairobi’s Eastlands.

“You took the easiest way to get here,” she said having directed us to turn off Outering road at Baba Dogo, then head to Lakisama and finally travel down several steep hills till we saw a giant graffiti face painted on corrugated iron sheet which was unmistakably created by Joan.

Then adjacent to the female face was the large multi-coloured spray-painted sign, ‘Warembo Wasanii’ on the corner which further reassured us that we had arrived.

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Warembo Wasanii founder Joan Otieno. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Joan had initially started the CBO at Bega wa Bega in Baba Dogo with fewer than a dozen girls, ages 18-25.

“Some were school dropouts, others we pulled off the streets where they might have gotten lost in crime or prostitution, and a few eventually even came from university,” says Joan who had to shift from there to Kariobangi North which got a bit tight as her group increased in numbers, including several young men.

The young women had already been taught by Joan how to create everything from plastic bag purses and mats to fashionable dresses with matching shoes and hats.

“We were already being invited to create fashion shows for UNEP,” recalls Joan whose girls wore dresses made from the packaging of plastic labels like Always pads and Trust condoms.

Having been cash-strapped from the beginning, Joan and her WW girls trooped (and still troop) once a week to the local dump where, for four hours, they collect plastic bags and tin cans for use as their primary artistic materials.

So while some artists claim they cannot create without costly paints and canvas, Joan with her fiercely independent spirit relies on handouts from no one.

“Longinos Nagila was very helpful in helping us get the [sixth floor] space in Kariobangi North, but then, we got a notice to move out as they were renovating the building,” says Joan who had to move again.

They hadn’t known where to go next, but then she remembered what she called three ‘dingy little empty rooms’ that she had seen every day as she’d walked from her home in Lakisama.

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There was a big empty unkempt lawn in front of the rooms. And while her WW regulars, namely Esther, Nzilani, Brenda, and Risper were not impressed and Joan was again cash-strapped, her mom finally chipped in to help her cover the deposit.

The rest is a marvel. After thoroughly cleaning those three rooms, Joan found sufficient iron sheets to wall off the lawn to extend WW's working space.

They elevated the walls with knotted plastic bags and found poles to hold up plastic shading where artists could create.

“Now we’ve created the studio out of one room, the gallery out of another, and the wardrobe or closet out of the third. That’s where we store all our dresses,” Joan explains.

“Some artists insist they cannot work unless they have a ready-made studio. Or they won’t exhibit except at a posh gallery, but we have our gallery and studio under one roof,” says Joan.