Sculpting for the who’s who

Kioko Mwitiki
Kioko Mwitiki, an art gallery director and renowned wildlife sculptor. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA 

Bill Clinton has one of his artworks. So did late Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, the King and Queen of Sweden and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Some of his wildlife sculptures stand at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and State House in Nairobi.

Kioko Mwitiki found fame and fortune in recycling metals and making sculptures. Now he is one of the top 35 renowned wildlife artists in the world.

He has a gallery in Lavington, Nairobi, where he also features and mentors upcoming artists.

This is where JACKSON BIKO met him for a tête-à-tête.

How does one get to make art that lands in Bill Clinton’s hands?

(Chuckle) I wish I knew the answer to that question. When I was in Kenyatta University studying fine art, I was caught up in the famous 1980s Mwakenya student unrest. About 70 of us were thrown out of university for one year. As punishment for getting involved in the strike, my sister sent me to work in a metal factory to be taught hard labour. That was her version of the Russian Gulag.

I was taken to a welding factory in Nakuru as an apprentice welder. During my lunch breaks, through my boredom, I would weld things together. One day some guy came and saw what I was doing and asked whether I could sell it to him. The rest is history. (Laughs) Oh, and I went back to the university and finished my degree in fine art.

I don’t suppose it was easy, was it?

Of course not. I taught fine art for a bit, then got into the jua kali sector. I got a studio in Kawangware. Most people didn’t understand why I was making the things I was making, they would call me “that guy who makes childish things.”

Why do some talented artists make it and others are never discovered?

There is God and chance, yes, but also real talent no matter how far down it’s buried, it will ooze out. When people relate to how an artist is expressing himself, it's easier for that artist to make it. It has to be authentic. I grew up in Kajiado and in the 60s, there was a lot of wildlife. When I started making wildebeests and lions sculptures, I was making them from a place of reference, not from a pathological sort of vet doctor school of drawing.

Are there people who are going to die with beautiful art in them?

Yes. It's terrible. They will die with beautiful art in their souls, beautiful poetry, it's so deep that sometimes you don't want to express it. There are people who look at art and see it for what it is, and that’s deep.

How do you think parents who want more traditional careers for their children should handle them when they want to pursue art that the parents feel will not make them fit in the competitive career world?

Some of the best art schools like Yale School of Art are scaling down their departments. They've realised that most artists are coming to do degrees in fine art just to authenticate that they were in that university. When they leave, they do nothing. Or the art they do is so embarrassing to the school.

Your child can go where you want him to but the soul knows what the soul wants. Also, diversity in society is brought about by having different people of different genres, different calibres and of different creative persuasions. Our society is so rigid and so focused on creating perfection and that's a problem.

What was your breakthrough? What happened that you thought, I’m on a different path with this thing?

That's a good question. When I did an exhibition that went through East Africa. It was called the “Land Mine Project of 1994.” It was sponsored by International Committee of the Red Cross. The late Diana, the Princess of Wales was the patron. My art was to travel the whole of Africa to show how the war had affected Africans.

How do you know how to price your work? What makes a particular sculpture more expensive than the other?

When you've been in art for a long time, especially at my level, my work starts giving itself a price. I had an art auction in 2011, a fundraiser for Jane Nguro who was an authority of souls in gorillas. I put up a gorilla sculpture for auction and it went for Sh3.6 million. I want to imagine that was the most highly paid art in Kenya, at that point. I didn't realise that my work had become valuable but that was a pointer. So your work will tell you how to price it at a certain point.

For a long time, art has been taken for granted. People don't really realise that art is really central to life and it has a value. So it must be charged per hour and per size of a sculpture. I teach and I'm a consultant, I charge per hour. I do art appraisals. I have the knowledge, the skills, I have been to so many art galleries around the world. I have dealt with art dealers. So there comes the value. Artists should not be shy to value their work but they do need somebody to guide them, especially the young artists.

You have an LGBT flag in your gallery. What does it say?

It's a rainbow society so we have to be inclusive to all kinds of people. Our society is going through a transformative stage and it's important especially in the creative space that we allow inclusivity. We don't want to leave anybody on the road because of gender.
Young artists now have access to the Internet. They have a friend in Tokyo or Islamabad. Their heads have a lot of different ideas and perceptions of life. These are the minds that we want to capture because they are very different from us. They talk through their painting.

You are now 55, what’s the next phase of your art going to capture?

The more I spend time with these young people, the more I see the cultural void in Kenya. I want to try and fill that void because the museums have failed us to be honest.

How old are the children?

My kids are 25, 21, and 18. My wife is a business woman. My son is into digital art and my young daughter is into theatre performance.