Michael Soi and Donald Trump have one thing in common. Both have taken on the Chinese for their presumptive economic practices. Trump hits them with tariffs for flooding US markets with cheap goods. Soi hits them for the way they’ve walked onto the continent. In ‘China Loves Africa,’ his current exhibition at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi, Soi uses visual satire to expose what he sees as Chinese neo-colonialism.
Soi's iconoclastic style of hitting ‘sacred cows’, be it the athletic, political, or expatriate, can be traced back years. He’s never minded ruffling people’s feathers, especially when they’ve tried to accuse him of ‘impropriety’. For instance, his ‘Sex in the City’ exhibitions with Thom Ogonga disturbed various groups who felt his art was ‘immoral’. But that didn’t stop him. He sees himself as a sort of cultural chronicler documenting what he sees in the country, no matter how scandalous it might seem to some.
Those exhibitions were big hits. But that topic is only one of many that Soi’s explored since he began painting in the early 1990s, first at BIFA, then at Kuona Trust and currently at the GoDown.
What compelled Soi to look more critically into the Chinese presence in Africa was Kenyans’ preparations for participation in the 2015 Venice Biennale.
During that time, local artists had discovered they were being misrepresented at the world-class art fair. Anonymous Chinese artists had occupied the ‘Kenyan Pavilion’ in Venice in 2013, and they were getting set to do it again in 2015.
The painting that Soi created to satirise this initiative went viral online and drew attention to his artworks.
The 77 artworks that make up his ‘China Loves Africa’ series have been created over the last four years. Unfortunately, the majority of them exist only in the artist’s online archive since they’ve been bought. “Four are now in China, another four are in Hong Kong, three are in Australia and the rest [apart from the 11] are scattered all over the world,” says Soi who consistently puts his paintings on Facebook when they are ‘works in progress’.
One reason for his worldwide popularity is due to his transparent use of Facebook. His online fan-base watches him as he works, step by step, in the case of practically every painting.
In that way, he cultivates a feeling of familiarity with his fans. Some even come to Kenya just to meet the artist and get one of his hand-painted bags from him personally.
“It’s just a matter of Fed-Ex-ing the work wherever it’s wanted,” says Soi who only held onto the 11 artworks that are up at Circle gallery because he realised he wanted a local show. “They all could have gone by now,” he adds.
Circle gallery’s co-founder Danda Jaroljmek sold several last week before the show since they were already at the gallery.
Soi says one other incentive that inspired him to create so many different stories about how ‘China Loves Africa’ was an incident that took place in 2016.
Six Chinese drove to the GoDown, went into his studio and harassed and lambasted him for abusing people through his art.
But rather than be intimidated by their visit, Soi says it ignited even more passion in him.