For Mika Obanda, getting kicked out of secondary school was a blessing in disguise. He might never have learned how to create mosaics out of eggshells and never found out his destiny was to become an artist.
“I was kicked out because I was a ‘drug addict’,” Mika tells BDLife at the opening of his first solo exhibition at One Off Gallery entitled ‘When I Think of My Mom’.
“Before my parents broke up, I used to walk with my dad who was a smoker. I wanted to be like him so I started smoking after my parents split,” Mika adds, admitting his was a different kind of ‘weed’ that kids around his neighbourhood in Mukuru were smoking.
His mother was so upset with him, she kept him out of school for the rest of that term.
After that, he went to Eastleigh Secondary where he was befriended by older students in the art department who quickly taught him how to create mosaic art with broken eggshells.
“Initially, I’d get the eggshells from the slums,” he says. He’d go to the [Nairobi] river’s edges and collect them there.
Subsequently, he has made an arrangement with Sarova Hotels whereby they give him boxes of eggshells at the end of every month.
Now Mika cuts his shells with the precision of a picture puzzle maker whereby every shell seems to fit together with the rest in shapely forms that reflect real-life experiences of his mom and himself.
The texture of his show and the talent involved in creating a biographical and even an autobiographical display of his own and his mother’s life must have touched One Off curator Carol Lees’ heart.
She admits she had never offered a 23-year-old a solo show at One Off before. But both the form and the content are unusual and beautiful.
All but one of the 31 painted eggshell mosaics are literally covered in recycled shells. It’s only the first one that Mika wants to start with as he shows BDLife around his show.
The first one is also the darkest. It’s the darkness that Mika merely painted in black with the image of a little boy cowering in a corner watching the scene, lit with a lantern, in which a man is clobbering a helpless woman.
Those are his parents and that is the culminating fight after which his mother leaves his dad. The rest of the exhibition depicts the minutia of Mama Mika’s struggle as a single mother to keep her family together.
Her one source of income is her potato sales, the work that she does when she is not praying, worrying, reading the Bible, reading with her kids, and gradually growing her business.
It’s almost hard to believe that the woman Mika introduces as his mother, Florence, is the same mama that he portrays at her seated post selling her potatoes.
I first meet Mama Mika after commenting on the fabulous two-piece Kaunda-like suit that Mika wears at the opening.
I ask him where he’d got it as it was unique. He explains that it is his mom who designed and stitched it to fit him like a slender glove.
When she finally appears, I am pleasantly surprised to see a stately lady adorned with multicoloured dreadlocks and a tailored African designer dress that is a cross between the Baganda gown with its flared shoulders and a free-flowing Kenyan skirt.
The whole dress is blazing red with black lines threaded through it.
She looks nothing like the mama depicted in her son’s storytelling paintings. Not that it matters, but it does raise many questions, the first one being, what happened?
What happened is that the mama had been ‘hiding her candle under a bushel’ all those years that she had been married and for years after that, while she was raising her children.
But when, we ask, had she the time to learn these skilled tailoring talents?
As it turns out, Florence had gone to college to learn the art of dressmaking while still living with her own mother.
But once her marriage broke down, she had to make money by any means necessary and as quickly as she could.
The one food that all Kenyans seem to love is potato, so that is why she wisely went into the potato sales business.
And it turns out, Mika might have actually inherited his creative inclination from his artistic mom. In any case, it was always there in the first place.