Michael Soi hardly makes art to please you. He makes art to challenge you, to provoke you and make you think. He interrogates dogma.
Considered among “second generation” artists to emerge from Kuona Trust in the late 90s, he has quite often ticked off a section of people (puritans, feminists and escapists) for the kind of art that in his words is a “satirical commentary on contemporary, social and political trends in Kenya from corruption to commercial sex workers.”
His work has been collected by the Casoria Museum of Contemporary Art in Italy, Standard Chartered Bank (UK), Luis Moreno Ocampo, Michela Wrong, Sir Robert Devereux and Lupita Nyong’o was photographed carrying one of his handbags.
He’s been at it for 23 years now.
JACKSON BIKO went over to his gallery at the GoDown Arts Centre, a massive room full of colour, life, statement and some risqué paintings of women holding beers. Wearing shorts and a racy peppered beard, he spoke while hunched over his desk throughout working on “Lupita bags” because he’s more than an artist, he’s a working man.
Lupita getting a hold of one of your bags must have been a game-changer for you…
These bags weren’t supposed to be a thing. I made a couple and left them in my studio and an expatriate woman saw one and asked, “are you selling this bag.’’ I said “no, but you can have it if you want it.”
Then she brought two other people. More people started asking for them, so I made two, then three, then 10, then 50. Lupita got one and posted it on her social media and my social media went crazy. Everybody wanted a bag.
For the next year, I didn’t paint anything, I was making these bags because the demand was just crazy. I soon realised this is not what I am. This is not what I do. This is something I do for fun and to make that quick extra coin. I realised if I wasn’t careful, I would end up becoming a bag-maker. I’m glad that the demand went down. Two years down the line, the demand has gone down to a place where I’m very comfortable with it.
So when you say this is not who you are, what do you mean?
I’m a painter. I tell stories about this city, I tell stories that people don’t want to hear. I’ve gotten to a point where my art is not about beauty. I’m not going to do seascapes, landscapes and a Maasai standing on one leg. I’m documenting this city for posterity so that 50 or 60 years from now, children sitting in a class will look through a book of images of my work and get a glimpse or an idea of what Nairobi was like back then.
Is art, artistry or a labour of love?
Yes, I studied art at Nairobi Creative Art Centre. I went to school with a lot of famous people and most of them decided not to pursue art because it wasn’t paying. It is not for the faint-hearted. (Laughs). People ask me, “if you got reborn, what would you do differently?” I would begin art much, much, earlier. I have struggled with it to a point where I’m now just happy. I’m happy in the sense that I have a job that I totally love, that pays me and I live off it comfortably. But it takes time.
It took me four years to sell my first artwork for Sh4,000 back in 1998. By this time, a lot of my contemporaries had given up, gone back to school, mastered in something else and gone back to work in banks and other sectors. I meet them nowadays and they’re bank executives and they ask, “you’re still doing that thing?” This here is about belief in yourself and what you represent.
Did this come from your upbringing or did it just spring from nowhere?
My dad is a painter. We grew up looking at him work and my decision came from that interaction. But he didn’t think I would make it as an artist. I don’t know why. He wanted me to join the military because my uncle was a military man. I wasn’t interested. I went to art school and when I graduated he sat me down and said,“okay, now that you have gotten an education, you can come I teach you the ropes.” I told him, “I’m not interested in learning anything from you.”
This wasn’t coming from a point of disrespect. We are in two very different generations. He grew up in the countryside, I grew up in the city. So the kind of stories I wanted to tell were city stories. I don’t know anything about guinea fowls and Maasai homesteads. I wanted to do garbage trucks or Kenya buses. He said, “Okay, fine. All the best, let’s see how far you’ll get.” And off I went.
To be your own man, not daddy’s man…
Yes. (Chuckles). You have to get to a point where you develop your own vision vocabulary. It’s a struggle to get into the market and battle with your own demons. Then you start making some few coins and you ask yourself, what next, where do I take this? One thing that I tell people is that art for art’s sake is the kind of art practised by a billionaire’s wife. Somebody who has no problems with rent or taking her children to the finest schools. Here, we make art so that it means something, to you, to him, to her, to them.
I really love the charisma of your work; very distinct, bold and unique. How do you develop a style?
Time. (Looks up from his work). Oh! and thanks. My work 15 years ago was different from this. I used to do a lot of work that revolved around politics. I used two animal characters that have similarities to local politicians; cat and pig. The cat is selfish, the pig is greedy. I got tired of doing that kind of work so I replaced the animal characters with the human figures and that gave birth to social issues.
Commercial sex workers seems to be central theme in most of your recent work, is that correct?
It is. It’s what people here basically term as controversial. I’ve been called a pervert by younger feminists. But these are social issues that have to be addressed. Often, people get uncomfortable when you go to places they are scared of going. I’m that guy who goes there and beyond. That comes at a price. If I want money, I will sell bags, I can sell 50 in a month, but I want to talk about issues.
Do you work daily?
Every single day. I have a 13-hour work day every single day except Sundays. I’m here by 7am.
Is that your daughter in the picture?
Yes. The one smiling. She’s nine and at that age, she’s beginning to ask questions. She comes here often and I have to turn over nude paintings (laughs) least she asks me questions I’m not ready to answer. That painting there, the one of two giraffes, that is hers.
As she grows older do you think that will affect your art and how you present it?
Uhm, I don’t think so. My work will never revolve around anyone, it’s about me. It’s about what I want to show.
Do you keep your own art?
No, but I have a collection of some of the best artists in this country. One day my daughter will auction them for a lot of money but not in Kenya. Here people buy your work because they saw it at their friend’s place, it’s more like a social thing or to fit in a crowd. Art out there goes for some insane amount of money. Jean Michel Basquiat’s work was recently bought by that young tech guy from Japan for like $110 million!
I’m just happy that my daughter has interest in art. We go to exhibitions together, so she knows a lot of these artists. So it’s basically like subconsciously getting her roped in.
How much is that one?
Oh..it’s good money. (Chuckles) It’s good money.