Nega Yilma crossed the border between Ethiopia and Kenya for the first time carrying just two paintbrushes.
Not that he wouldn’t need more than that to launch his career as a painter of past acclaim.
He’d been winning art awards from the time he was twelve. He’d also been fortunate to attend what he says is the largest art school in Africa, at the University of Addis Ababa.
But he’d wanted a change, which he definitely found in coming to Kenya. On the positive side, it enabled him to exhibit his art everywhere from RaMoMa (when it was still situated at Rahimtulla Tower in Upper Hill) and the Kenya Art Fair (when it was still at Sarit Centre) to Banana Hill Gallery, University of Nairobi, and Karen Country Club.
The fine art of painting and exhibiting has never been a problem for Nega. It’s the challenge of staying alive that was problematic for this eccentric Ethiopian artist for a time.
It meant applying his vibrant imagination to issues ordinary people struggle with every day, such as how to put food on the table, how to stay warm (or how to stay cool) when the weather is contrary, and how to find a secure and affordable place to sleep with a roof over his head.
Speaking to the BDLife shortly after his first solo show opened at Banana Hill Gallery last weekend, Nega is shameless about explaining the jobs he was compelled to take to survive.
“I’ve been everything from a security guard and gardener to a teacher, a boxer, and a nomad who has moved so many places since I first came to Kenya in 1997,” Nega says.
He is also a great storyteller and easily recalls how he has lived everywhere from Loresho Ridge, Muthaiga, and Kitisuru to Eastleigh, Dagoretti Corner, and currently, Banana Hill, just a five-minute walk from the Gallery.
“This is my first solo exhibition in Kenya, and I’m happy to be having it at Banana Hill Gallery,” says the 51-year-old former boxer.
‘The Last Born of Melody’ is filled with 40 paintings, mainly portraits (or parodies of selfie portraits), but also landscapes, seascapes, and colourful abstract expressionistic images, a few of which are Nega’s response to the rock art recently found in his home country.
Having lived and worked in Kenya from 1997 up until early 2020, Nega adds that all these works were painted during the Covid lockdown in Addis.
This may have influenced his painting of two works on ‘The Elders’. Only one of them has an assemblage of wise old guys who look like the embodiment of dignity.
The other is a singular portrait of a beautiful old man. Surprisingly, they are the only works in the show that are almost hyper-realistic in their delicate attention to detail, refined lines, and focus on the important features of the men’s faces.
Yet Nega doesn’t stop with faces. In the same paintings, he also explores issues of design and how many different design ideas can be squeezed into his men’s attire, be they on a tie, lapel, hat, collar or jacket.
They all have that multicultural charm of mixing and never matching the designs. It works on the streets of Nairobi, and it also works in Nega’s art.
His portraits all have that long neck and long faced-look that Nega suggests derive from his view of selfie devotees.
They are people who gain a sense of pride when they are in control of their selfie space.
They don’t mind sharing it with maybe one other, but no more since they prefer owning the focus of attention in what they consider their mode of expression.
To them, their selfie is a work of art. It is these self-centred selfie people that Nega paints.
Yet he also paints sweet people like the two boys in the coffee plantation, the girl in the yellow dress, and the man with his saxophone about to give a Miles Davis-styled performance.
Nega also takes note of the tremendous changes that Nairobi has gone through over the last two years since Covid-19 kicked us out of our known lives and turned us all into indoor plants that were craving the light of day.
Finally, the light has come, and so have the rains. Both bring us closer to Nega’s bright jigsaw puzzles of design as well as to his series entitled ‘Looking for the light’ which reveals a conceptual side of the artist that is deep and deliciously captivating.