Wajukuu centre, an oasis of art in a desert of dirt and debris


(L-R) Shabu Mwangi, Ngugi Waweru, and Kim, Mukuru Lunga Lunga, at the new Wajukuu Artists Collective Centre on November 20, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG



  • Wajukuu has also inspired many young [mostly] men to take up the challenge of developing their own artistic talents.
  • Wajukuu has appealed to the organizers of what’s been billed as the biggest art event in Europe called ‘Documenta’.

Wajukuu Artists Collective inaugurated their brand-new arts studio last Monday with a week-long workshop for fellow artists from their Mukuru Lunga Lunga community and beyond.

“We’ve been building the centre since last June,” says Wajukuu founder-artist Shabu Mwangi. “Previously, it had been a sugar cane plantation,” he adds, noting that was some time back.

Shabu’s colleague, Ngugi Waweru, explains that construction of the studio is not yet complete. “When we are done, the studio will be a double-decker so artists will be able to work both upstairs and downstairs,” he adds.

Ever since 2007 when Shabu launched the original Wajukuu Art Centre (which is just around the corner from the new studio), the arts have played an important role in this ever-changing informal settlement.

“The centre is where we have all our special projects. Here [meaning the new studio] is a space that’s exclusively reserved for artists,” Shabu tells BDLIFE.

It’s the centre that’s attracted global appreciation of Wajukuu for its being a kind of oasis of art in a desert of dirt, dust, debris, and dilapidated mabati housing.

For the centre has not only offered art classes for kids in the neighborhood. It’s offered carpentry and woodworking for slightly older children. And it even screens documentary films which are educational and uplifting to all ages and backgrounds.

Wajukuu has also inspired many young [mostly] men, starting with Ngugi and Joseph Weche, to take up the challenge of developing their own artistic talents. In this regard, it’s Shabu who has been a role model for these emerging artists. “He’s shown us how anything is possible if we’re committed to making it happen,” says Ngugi.

Shabu’s commitment to art started early on, even before he completed primary school at Rubin Centre in Lunga Lunga.

“Art was still on the syllabus when I went through primary. And since Rubin Centre was run by [Catholic] Brothers, there was greater interest expressed in art,” he says.

Shabu’s circumstances were slightly different from those of Ngugi and Weche since they both went to Saint Elizabeth’s primary where art was not taught.

Shabu already could feel he had a calling, to be an artist, so when Sister Marie invited him to join her ‘art college’, he could hardly resist.

“I didn’t learn much in Sr Mary‘s school. In fact, a few months after I joined, she moved me into managing the college’s art and craft centre,’ he says.

The items that he curated and sold there were what Shabu describes as basically tourist art. It was mainly Maasai-related and wildlife. Nonetheless, he was getting exposed to new ideas every day.

The idea of finding a studio space to work in the slum was the first challenge that Shabu, Ngugi and Weche wanted to solve. That quickly shifted to seeking space to build a community-based art centre. “It was a process that evolved over a couple of years,” Shabu says.

In fact, it was the neighborhood children who played their part in the shift from an artists’ studio to an art centre. “They kept coming around and trying to draw and paint like us,” says Ngugi. Eventually, the art classes grew out of the children’s desire to be creative and to express themselves the way the big boys did.

Meanwhile, Shabu’s artworks were getting noticed by several Nairobi galleries, and he began having shows at both One Off and Circle Art Galleries.

“I had a lot to say in my art,” he says, recalling the way his own social status as an outsider was reflected in his painterly concerns for the oppressed, the migrants, and refugees as well as those with psychological issues.

Today, Shabu says some of Wajukuu’s members now have the means to move out of the slum if they wish. “But we don’t leave. We want to remain to uplift our community with art.”

That sense of loyalty is partly why art lovers have been so keen to support Shabu and the Wajukuu centre. “We want to stay here and help build our community, especially the youth,” says Shabu who feels art can indeed move mountains. His life experience is sufficient testimony to that fact.

Wajukuu has even appealed to the organizers of what’s been billed as the biggest art event in Europe called ‘Documenta’ which Shabu and Ngugi will be attending and presenting artworks they’re creating right now.

“We’re in the process of creating installations, a video and three separate books,” says Ngugi.

Their entire contribution to the event needs to be completed by early next year. “We’re confident we will make the deadline,” Shabu says.