A master’s student stunning smoke art


Rupante Tobiko's Ostrich-feathered Maasai Moran at Kenyatta University. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Kenyatta University’s Department of Fine Art and Design finally got an art gallery of its own.

Having gotten by without a permanent gallery since the mid-1960s when the art department was initially set up, it’s been regularly exhibiting students’ artwork, according to Department Chair Adonijah Ombura, only that the works have been hung in various venues, from the Students’ Business Centre to assorted classrooms.

But since 2018, when the International Language and Culture Centre (ILCC) was constructed, thanks to support from the Chinese Confucius Institute, the Art Department finally got the spacious venue it had wished for.

“Anne Mwiti is in charge of the gallery,” says Mr Ombura, who adds that space will be available to both KU students and faculty as well as the public.

The current exhibition, based on works by masters’ degree candidates, just opened early this month and runs to the end of June.

Both Rupante Tobiko and Patrick Esenerna have done rigorous research to develop the mammoth exhibitions they have put on display. One aims to document his people’s pre-colonial culture using a variety of techniques; the other examines the environmental problem of trash and its potential for being transformed into splendid treasures.

Tobiko’s exhibition was such a rich, multifaceted assortment of both the form and content of a singular theme that I spent my whole morning with him.

Developing a genre of painting that he calls ‘smoke art’, he says he grew up playing not with fire but with smoke.

“I used to experiment with smoke as a child since I grew up without electricity, only [kerosene-lit] flames,” says Tobiko, who was born and brought up by parents who never went to school.

“But my father valued the education he never had and sent all seven of his children to school, selling cattle for school fees,” says the artist whose exhibition constitutes not only his final project before earning a Master’s of Fine Art. It’s also the first step in his broader goal of documenting the entirety of Maasai culture.

Growing up in a manyatta and attending most of the traditional ceremonies that moran typically does, Tobiko says he is comfortable living as a man of two worlds. Nonetheless, his exhibition is focused on his people and features smoke paintings, sketches, video, and a catalogue inspired by images of all things Maasai.

But as interesting as are his portraits of Maasai moran decked out in lion manes, ostrich feathers, and brass earrings, what is truly intriguing about his exhibition is his smoke art.

“I conducted 672 experiments working with smoke on various surfaces to see which ones worked best,” he says, pointing at parts of his video that illustrate that research.”

“I found that smoke works best on surfaces that are smooth and porous,” he explains.

“I experimented with everything from paper and cardboard to aluminium foil, canvas, and glass,” he adds.

His exhibition only has one aluminium-backed painting and one smoke-painted glass. The rest were a mix of smoke on either paper, cardboard or canvas. But he used multiple techniques to create his portraits, including paper-cuts and stencils, as well as painting using a flame almost as if it were a brush to create dark, smoky effects.

Tobiko uses a fixer (or varnish) to ensure his smoke art didn’t get rubbed or smudged.

“I left one painting half-fixed so the examiners could see the difference,” he says, touching an unfixed part of that painting to prove how delicate the technique is. His fingertip was covered in smoke.

All of Tobiko’s paintings are beautifully mounted, framed, and captioned with relevant details. Nonetheless, he had to explain one moran head-dress made with dead birds (stuffed with grass) having beautiful plumes.

“They were practising early forms of taxidermy,” he says.

Taking pride in being a Maasai, Tobiko has felt no conflict about having a Western education but still being deeply rooted in traditional culture.

“I’m committed to documenting as much Maasai culture as I can,” he says.