Art blossoms in Nairobi slum

Lazarus Tumbuti’s prints. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG
Lazarus Tumbuti’s prints. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Wajukuu Art Project got its name from a Swahili proverb, “Majuto ni mjukuu huja baadaye”. It loosely translates: The grandchild suffers from the mistakes or regrets made by his forefathers.

“For instance, if a grandfather sells off the family land, he’ll leave his grandchildren poor and landless,” explains Josephat Kimathi, a long-standing member of Wajukuu Art who was introduced to the project as a child.

“I learned to paint when I joined Wajukuu’s Kids Art Club,” he says.

The children club is still on during weekends and school holidays, only now Kimathi is one of the art teachers.

“The kids come from all over Mukuru {slum} and most of them are around six years old,” says Lazarus Tumbuti who’s been with Wajukuu since it started in 2004.


“We started it with Shabu [Mwangi] soon after we’d both finished training at MAC [Mukuru Arts and Crafts],” says Lazarus who is one of several Wajukuu members who had the benefit of studying art at MAC, a two year art programme started by an Irish Catholic nun, Sister Mary, in 2002.

Wajukuu was officially registered in 2007. But by then, not only the kids’ art club had taken off.

Aspiring artists like Ngugi Waweru, Joseph Waweru and Paul Njoroge had also joined.

The project had equally inspired a number of more-established Kenyan artists to run training workshops at Kuona Trust and GoDown for Wajukuu’s emerging artists.

They included Peterson Kamwathi and John Silver, both of whom shared their skills in printmaking. The fruits of that training are clearly manifest in the prints that Wajukuu artists have tucked away upstairs in their Lunga Lunga Road studio.
“We don’t have a printing press per se,” says Ngugi.

“Instead we make blocks [covered in plastic] and use them to press by hand.”

It looks like a long and laborious process. But what Wajukuu artists produce are prints that will hopefully be on display in public quite soon.

They also paint, with their works most recently shown this past year at Kuona Trust and in Circle Art’s ‘Young Guns’ exhibition.

But the best place to see the newest works by Wajukuu artists is at their upstairs studio.

For instance, works included in Waweru’s ‘ant series’ are lovely, but they also conceal cryptic socio-political and personal commentaries on the realities of poor people’s lives.

In fact, nearly all the artists at Wajukuu were born and raised in Mukuru.

“Most of us are sons of single mothers who couldn’t afford to send us to secondary. So we were fortunate to find ourselves learning to be artists,” says Lazarus.

“But when one of us sells a painting, he contributes 10 per cent to [the collective kitty],” Waweru says.

“And if a [sold] artwork was made with materials provided by Wajukuu, the artist contributes 20 per cent of his sales,” he adds.

Initially, Wajukuu was helped both with training and obtaining art materials from fellow artists like Patrick Mukabi, Kaafiri Kariuki, Anthony Wanjau, Mary Ogembo and Wambui Collymore.

International School of Kenya (ISK) also collaborated with Wajukuu artists and parents even raised funds to help construct Wajukuu’s facilities.

Waweru adds their project has been assisted by many more generous supporters. But most notably, it was the Italian NGO, Movement for International Co-operation (MOCI) that also helped construct their double-decker centre.

“MOCI was impressed with our kids’ art programme so they invited us to do art therapy with handicapped children at their vocational training centre in Makueni,” adds Ngugi.

They helped build a library in an adjacent building. “We also helped us buy land so we now own the art centre and library next door,” adds Waweru.