City 'elders' take aspiring artists under their wings

Kuria Njogu with his Voodoo Mama painting in Studio Soko exhibition at Nairobi National Museum on September 10, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

When I first met Jeffie Magina in his Nairobi home, he was comfortably squeezed inside a space one might otherwise deem a museum.

His artworks were tightly hung close by one another, but they included precious early works that he had swapped with soon-to-be important Kenyan artists like Dennis Muraguri, Michael Soi, Maggie Otieno, Longinos Nagila, and Patrick Mukabi, exchanging his early works for theirs.

Magina was content at the time, but soon realised he needed to expand his studio space since his artistic expectations and vision had grown.

He was already working well with local artists. But new generations were being born, and he wanted them to enjoy some of the benefits of training that he’d had to find outside of formal art schools, among his fellow artists.

That is one reason he joined Studio Soko, which at the time was just Jeremiah Sonko and Kuria Njogu. They were based in Nairobi's South B, which is where they held their first Safari Mentoring Art programme.

It is also what led to the first ‘Listening II my Soul’ exhibition in 2019, featuring young artists like Daisy Buyanzi, Husna Ismael, and Joyce Kuria.

That was shortly before the pandemic hit Kenya and the world at large. But it meant the second Safari Mentorship Programme would be put on hold until the situation improved.

Museum exhibition

It finally did in 2022 when Studio Soko put out the call for youth who wanted to take part in the programme that would begin in April. Since it was fully self-funded, the Studio Soko trio could only afford four mentees, Felix Otieno, Billy Chelilde, Joshua Asewe, and Tony Kiprop.

Joshua Osewe's lady painting at Nairobi National Museum on September 10, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

“There were also children who got mixed up with the mentees since I was teaching art to children while mentoring older [aspiring] artists at the same time,” Magina tells the BDLife. That is how Abigael Nkatha, 11, got into the second ‘Listening II my Soul’.

All the mentees represented at the exhibition that opened September 8 at Nairobi National Museum’s Creativity Gallery are in their early 20s. Meanwhile, the mentors, elders Magina, Kuria, and Sonko are in their 30s.

Most of the works presented are paintings, on canvas or paper. But there are the two sets of sculptures as well which are among the most interesting works in the show.

And nearly everything in the exhibition was conceived in the new studio Magina created after tearing down his tiny space and reconstructing his home, studio, and gallery as a bigger, better duplex.

“Now I have room not only for my friends’ artworks in my gallery. I also have a larger studio where there’s room for the mentees as well as me,” says Magina. He is careful not to claim ownership of Studio Soko as he insists it’s still alive and well although it has no physical space of its own right now.

The other big challenge of the programme was art materials. “As we had no sponsorship,” says Magina, “we had to dig deep into our own pockets. But we’re grateful to TICAH (Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health) for enabling us to have this exhibition at the National Museum,” he adds.

Having no funds to buy his canvas or paints, Magina also had to ‘make do’ with what he had on hand. “All I had was a hammer and screwdriver and some building stones I found on the street,” he says, having sculpted busts which are among the most elegant works in the show.

His “Head of Medusa”, “Jane Doe” and “Scream” are all filled with emotional resonance and careful craft. It’s surprising to believe that Magina had neither taken a sculpting class nor worked with a hammer and screwdriver in that fashion before preparing for their second Listening show.

He admits he must have been ‘listening’ since he had never thought of himself as a sculptor before now. He also has paintings in the show. So does Kuria who has been making do, using discarded vinyl disks as the mainstay of his art for many years.

But if one goal of Studio Soko has been to transfer knowledge, experience, and artistic skills to the next generation, then Listening II my Soul has proved they’ve succeeded.

They have only touched the lives of a few young people who have begun to see a wider range of possibilities open to them in visual arts. Now it is time for other ‘elder’ artists to step up and assist more youth who are wannabe professional artists. There is a lot to learn.

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