Art

Slum art school where lives are transformed

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Stephen Ndovu, 30, Manjano award winner, member of Mukuru Art Collective during the July 24 interview. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

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Summary

  • The artist cum art teacher currently has over 40 students, aged from 17 to 39.
  • He doesn’t set limits on membership in the collective since he believes that art can serve as a means of uplifting people’s lives, giving them a sense of purpose and a means of self-expression.
  • He coaches everyone from an ex-convict, female boxer, and former sign-writer to a former math teacher, eggshell artist, and award-winning teenager.

Soon after Adam Masava came back from his first successful art exhibition in the Czech Republic, he began teaching art to school children from his old neighborhood Mukuru Kwa Njenga as his way of ‘paying back’ his ‘hood for all it had taught him – both good and bad things—as he grew up.

“I also saw school-age kids ‘getting lost’ because they didn’t have useful things to do in their spare time. I wanted to engage them in art as a way of teaching them they could use their imaginations to solve their problems,” Masava says. One of those children, Ann Mumbi, 18, was just age six when she first met him teaching art at her school. She just came back to studying art with him a few months ago.

As word got around that he was teaching art for free, the age of his students rose. “I eventually had to move out of the school and invite students to come work in my studio,” says the artist cum art teacher who currently has over 40 students, aged from 17 to 39.

On the day BDLife went to visit his studio, now known as Mukuru Art Collective, over a dozen students were at the double-decker studio. “Now that schools have reopened, many have gone back to their schools,” he observes.

But Masava’s same open-door policy remains, irrespective of the numbers. He doesn’t set limits on membership in the collective since he believes that art can serve as a means of uplifting people’s lives, giving them a sense of purpose and a means of self-expression. Now he coaches everyone from an ex-convict, female boxer, and former sign-writer to a former math teacher, eggshell artist, and award-winning teenager. Alex Mungare, 17, just won the Toyota ‘Dream Car’ Competition and earned himself Sh50,000 and Sh500,000 for Mukuru Art Collective.

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Alex MUngare,17 who won the Toyota Art Competition shows his work at Mukuru Art Collective on July 24, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

“I’m also the youngest artist here at the studio,” he announces proudly. Having joined Masava’s art club when he was 10, Alex had already visited Patrick Mukabi’s Dust Depo when he met Adam whose studio is just down the road from his family home. “Alex shifted to my studio and has been painting there ever since,” says Masava who since 2008 has also been exhibiting his art everywhere from Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands to Taiwan, Slovakia, and the US.

Alex isn’t the only award-winning artist who paints at the Collective. Stephen Ndovu, 30, just won second prize in the student category at the annual Manjano Art competition. Two years before, Isaiah Malunga won the Kenya Arts Diary artist’s residency at Kitengela Glass Trust.

Besides Ann Mumbi, an increasing number of girls are joining the Collective. Amina Martha, 25, is an amateur boxer who initially went to the gym to lose weight. She was still at Masinda University, studying journalism at the time.

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Boxer Amina Martha poses with her painting at Mukuru Art Collective studio in Nairobi on July 24, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

“One of the ways we learned to lose weight at the gym was boxing. Once I started it, I found I enjoyed it,” says this petite bantam-weight amateur who hopes to one day represent Kenya in international tournaments. “After I had only trained two weeks, I entered a competition and lost; but I also won one round,” she says, now determined to keep training and even coaching other young women on boxing and self-defense.

While at that tournament, Amina met Benson Gicharu, the two-time Olympiad boxer who now coaches children in boxing and is also a member of Mukuru Art Collective. “George is the one who told me about the Collective,” Amina, who currently has been with Masava for the last nine months, says. She’s still boxing but now also learning how to paint.

One of the most remarkable stories I heard at the Collective came from James Mutugi, 39, a convicted felon and former pickpocket who spent 13 years in prison after getting caught stealing a man’s money and a new Nokia phone. He’s been with Masava for the past year and now finds painting both therapeutic and a means of earning a living.

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James Mutugi, 39, reformed convict paints memories of life at Kamiti Prison at Masava's studio, Mukuru Art Collective on July 24, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

“I got caught in 2008, but had already been studying animation and graphic design at Shang Tao Media Arts College,” Mutugi says. Poverty is what caught him off-guard, and led to his turning to petty crime to survive. Fortunately, he had already met Sister Mary of Mukuru Art Centre who suggested he meet Masava. His life and his art have only improved since then.