Maasai Mbili is one of the first Kenyan artist collectives to get organised in Nairobi.
There were some that preceded it, like the Ngecha Artists Association which was launched in 1995, several members of whom will be in Ngecha Art Centre’s upcoming exhibition opening June 2. There was also the Banana Hill Artists Studio which preceded the BHA Gallery by more than a decade, having first assembled in 1992.
But Maasai Mbili is a 21st century phenomenon. It’s a collective that began with two young sign writers, Gombo Otieno and Kota Otieno, who were living in Kibera and shrewdly dressing up as Maasai as a masterful marketing device to attract more business.
Nobody could ignore the imagination and humour that went into two young men from Western Kenya dressing up like Morans in bright Maasai shukas and parading around Nairobi’s most notorious slum, armed not with spears but with paint brushes attached to long spear-like sticks.
The two Otieno’s (no immediate family ties) quickly became known as Maasai Mbili (abbreviated as M2), and even more quickly attracted other aspiring artists who wanted to associate with them. It didn’t happen overnight, and M2 has seen many artists come and go, including the late Ashif (aka George) Malamba.
But there’s a core of M2 artists who’s stuck with the group for years. They include Gomba Otieno, Mbuthia Maina, Kevo Stero, J.K. Rabala, Charles Chakara and Ashif (who remains a member of the group in spirit).
Meanwhile, there are six more recent members of M2 who are altogether part of the first group exhibition, entitled ‘Wachembe’ that M2 has had at Polka Dot Gallery in Karen.
The seven ‘newcomers’ (relatively speaking) are Anitah Kivochy, Brian Odhiambo, James Dundi, Janet Akinyi, Joakim Kwaru, Ronald Ronex and Vincent Masinde. But whether new or old, the beauty of M2 is the collective’s acceptance of artists who share the same vision and commitment that Gomba has frequently shared with me.
It is that they have no desire to ‘escape’ Kibera or so-called slum life. They’d rather thrive on the ad hoc energy that they feel every day of living in the city (Kibera) within a city, Nairobi, and creating art that reflects the dignity, determination, wit and resilience of ordinary Kenyans who are getting on with their lives.
That attitude, not of glorifying poverty, but of appreciating people’s humanity, is reflecting in all the works in ‘Wachembe’. Whether it’s the satiric ‘poster art’ that Maasai Mbili is best known for, seen especially in the so-called ‘politician poster’ paintings by Gomba and graffiti-like vinyl disks of Brian Odhiambo, or the hand-stitched metallic artworks of James Dundi or even the painted prints of Mbuthia Maina, (the M2 artist who co-curated the show with Rose Jepkorir), the M2 artists are a distinctive breed.
Today, there are many more artists whose main art materials are ‘found (recycled) objects’.
However, 10 years back, this was not the case. But M2 artists have been creating art with found items (also known as trash or junk) since their inception. In the process of transforming trash into artistic treasures, they have made an important statement about the beauty, wisdom and artistic ingenuity that’s to be found in places that some would dismiss as an ‘ugly slum’ out of their ignorance and not knowing that it’s not only the rich and elite who appreciate art and creativity.
On the contrary, it’s that appreciation for art and beauty that M2 artists have that is well represented at the Polka Dot.
The M2 artists will hold a workshop at Polka Dot on Saturday, June 2. To attend you register with Polka Dot online.
Meanwhile, several openings transpired in the last fortnight. At Circle Art Gallery, Sidney Mang’ang’o’s ‘Imagined Structures’ exhibition opened May 16 and will run through June. This past Wednesday, Rhodia Mann’s Museum of Samburu Culture was launched at the International School of Kenya.
The same day, seven (more) Ugandan artists’ group show opened in the Exhibition Hall of Village Market. It was just last month that six Ugandan painters did the same thing at Village.
All have been talented and well-trained, many having the good fortune to have been taught at the oldest art school in East Africa, Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art.
Finally, tomorrow afternoon, the artworks of Kenya-born painter Timothy Brooke will be showcased at One Off Gallery. ‘Earth and Sky’ will feature oil paintings and water colours as well as graphics by the internationally-acclaimed artist.