Chege Gitura, a square peg that won’t fit in a round hole, walks around his snazzy office without shoes. His jacket is off, but an odd scarf curls around his neck. He is an artist at heart. He started Chege Designers in the early 80s, soon after his undergraduate degree at University of Nairobi. Later in 2006, he did a Master’s degree in design). He paints and plays piano. The intrepid traveller is a father- of- three, one of whom he walked down the aisle a few months ago. He also collects lots of paintings from different artists locally and internationally.
He shows JACKSON BIKO one of his favourite paintings that employs the same style as Van Gogh (an impressionist style he also subscribes to) in a room in his office that he calls the “Thinking Room.” This is where he takes time to think, with his shoes off, most likely. He talks about living his life with his art.
Your white hair, is it greying naturally or you have dyed it to get a certain look?
(Laughs) No, I don't dye it. I'm in my 50s now and in my family we start greying at about 30.
This love affair with painting and art, where does it come from?
I did art in school, got an A for my ‘A’ levels in Lenana School. But I have always loved art, in fact this is what I'd like to retire to; painting. Although I saw myself painting to earn a living I chose instead to study design.
But I love painting because it’s a subjective art and that’s the difference between it and design. You paint for yourself. I don’t care what anyone thinks. But design is interpreting a client’s thought and he pays you to get it right. My last exhibition was at the National Museum where I sold 15 paintings, but since then, no painting has come out of me because of obligations. I haven’t painted in three years now. When you have responsibilities, more often than not you will treat painting like a subsidiary profession.
You are a keen traveller— you pack your bags and go, what draws you most to travelling?
Curiosity. The first ticket I bought was to London in the 80s. It was something like Sh7,000. I wanted to see where these guys who colonised us came from. Then when someone talked about Beverly Hills I thought, ‘I don’t want to hear about it from someone else, I want to see it.’ So I went. I also went to Hiroshima, New York and I haven’t stopped seeing.
Three weeks ago, I was in Morocco because they have some of the best paintings and I wanted to get inspiration from that, but also from the smells and colours of the place.
What’s the biggest revelation you have learnt from travelling?
That people are the same. We have the same fears, same worries and same needs. Most times what you see of people aren’t exactly who they are. People mask their real selves. Some people who talk a lot could be protecting themselves or are shy. Turns out that shy people are more confident because they don’t have to say anything.
What's the secret to a fulfilling life according to you and would you say yours is?
I think my life is fulfilling. I have done and keep doing the things that I love. One must follow their dreams, do what you want. You have to design your life the way you see it. Unfortunately, we've been brought up with restrictions because of religion or culture or whatever. But when you learn to listen to yourself first, you will be on the path of fulfilment.
What's your biggest weakness?
Many. (Pause) Maybe I talk too much, that's a weakness. Maybe I will say things in this interview that will make me cringe when I read later. (Laughs) Maybe I complain, that's a weakness. Maybe talking about people is a weakness because we are told not to talk about people. Sometimes I wonder what you should talk about because we live in a space where we just deal with people every day. I really wonder when people say ‘‘don't talk about people.’’ Do you hear people saying things like that?
Do your peers find you odd or eccentric?
(Sigh) Well, I think people have mixed thoughts about things. Some people envy you; they envy the fact that you have the courage to do some things. Other people would think ‘‘oh really why would you want to waste money on things like travelling to see museums?’’ People interpret things differently. I love cars, for instance, but I can’t talk about my cars because it comes across as showy. I also love clothes and there was a time when I was younger I’d go to Rome to shop because I wanted to have the very best shoes and clothes. What would someone think of that? Now I’d rather get into a museum when I travel than a mall. Is that eccentric now or was shopping for clothes eccentric then? People will think whatever they choose of you, you can’t change it.
What do you fear now?
(Pause) At the back of my mind I always imagine now that I've lived my life, I hope that my children know the things that I know so that they can let go and have a good life. My eldest son is married and he just got a child. We are going to see him in Australia. Sometimes I have anxiety that he is just starting out and working so hard. I hope it comes together for him. But I’m very happy my children have passed that stage where they get confused, get into drugs and all that.
Since you love beautiful things. If you were allowed one beautiful thing to carry to Heaven, what would that be?
I think, a creative mind so that I can be able to explore heaven and see it’s true beauty and the intrigues it has. The idea of God and Heaven is just really an intrigue. Nobody has seen it. So I'd imagine it's just like I've wanted to go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. I'd like to go to Heaven so that I see the gate and the angels. It must be very intriguing to be there.
Does it get to a certain point in a career or in life where you just want to surround yourself with things or collect things that make you happy?
Maybe. I have more paintings than I have places to put them now. My house is full of paintings. Investing in painting is the future of keeping money because they will become very valuable. I bought that painting in Paris, give it a few years it will be very expensive. I don’t surround myself with money, I surround myself with paintings.
You just gave your daughter’s hand in marriage, would you be happy if she has married the exact same man like you are?
(Long pause) Now that’s a difficult question. (Pause) I've taught my children to be able to make their own judgment of what they would want without coercion. I hope I have instilled in them the ability to be able to make a decision, that this is the kind of a woman or man that I want. (Pause) I don't want them to be like me, I want them to be their own person.