Creating art for the visually-impaired sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. It sounds like an impossibility.
Yet once you meet Tina Benawra, the diminutive Kenyan artist who loves painting on large canvases like the one currently on display in the front lobby of Nairobi’s Hotel Intercontinental, you won’t be surprised to find that very little looks impossible to her.
Growing up in Ngara, the only little girl in a ‘hood full of busy little boys, Tina joined in on all their games, including making toy matatus and cars from Kimbo tins, soda bottle tops and wires.
“I think that’s when I acquired my taste for both art and science,” says the former biophysicist turned filmmaker turned visual artist, whose paintings literally speak to the visually impaired.
Having grown up the middle child between two brothers, Tina’s parents were conventional enough to educate their boys while encouraging their girl to get a job. Tina completed her A-levels on a scholarship but then went to work as a flight attendant.
That’s how she got to Basel, Switzerland where she found the Open University that enabled her to study and work simultaneously.
It was the sciences that intrigued her most initially. But after several years, first researching a cure for HIV/Aids, then shifting into engineering, she realised the sciences alone couldn’t satisfy her soul. So she went to study film in the UK, now realising the arts had more appeal to her over the long haul.
Having studied film editing and scriptwriting before learning a family member back home wasn’t well, Tina returned to Kenya in 2015 just in time to participate in the Machakos Film Festival. But she wasn’t ready to move back to Kenya just yet. Her home base was still Basel.
It was there that she began studying the Swiss psychologist CG Jung and the unconscious.
“I found myself buying cans of spray paint and ‘automatically’ creating graffiti on walls,” she says.
Some of her graffiti had a more controlled and realistic feel to it, but progressively, it’s got more surreal and automatic.
Around the same time, Tina realised her twin loves of art and engineering could go hand in hand. She’d come back to Kenya to attend her brother’s wedding; and while she was here, she took a course in welding from a friend in Mlolongo. (She wanted to weld scrap metal into a water fountain). It wasn’t long thereafter that she began meeting Kenyans who shared nearly as broad a range of interests as she had.
Before that time, Tina was flying back and forth between Switzerland and Kenya, and hadn’t settled in sufficiently to see much of the Nairobi arts scene.
But the scale was now tipping towards spending more time and doing more with her art in Kenya. That’s when she met Velma Kiome of the Christian Blind Mission (CBM) and began to see how her art could serve as a form of therapy for relieving the disabled of their sense of isolation and alienation.
When she got the call to create a painting for the visually impaired, Tina first thought of texture and the blind literally feeling her paintings. But then she decided to learn Braille, the language of the blind. Now she incorporates a bit of it into her highly textured artworks.
Her art at Hotel Intercontinental is for the visually impaired in two respects. On the one hand, it can be felt and read to be appreciated. But it can also be bought since the funds from its sale will go to CBM, to help build an art centre that will enable to disabled to paint, sculpt and get involved in expressing more of their creative selves.
Tina is already working on more artworks for the visually-impaired but now she wants to also incorporate sound into her work, creating more multimedia art.
“I also have a deep concern for the environment, so I hope to create artworks that can educate young people about the importance of protecting and preserving our environment,” says this innovative young woman who, for the time being, is happy to be working from this side of the world.
“I’ve got several new projects that I’m working on which will keep me busy here for the time being,” she adds. “So, yes, I guess I’m back, but I’m still on the move.”