Lucki Mutebi is not just a contemporary Kenyan artist, one of a dozen whose portraits (of Sebei women from Mt Elgon) serve as centre pieces at the African Portraits exhibition curated by Camille Wekesa at the Standard Chartered Bank in Chiromo, Nairobi.
Mutebi is also a “commuter” artist who travels between Kitale, Kahawa and Kenyatta University in Nairobi, and Kampala where he currently lives. But his travels have also taken him often to Paris and from Banana Hill to Bordeaux and Brussels where he studied interior design in the 1990s.
Having lived mostly outside Kenya since 1998, Mutebi initially went to study in Belgium, then joined his wife Claire in France. And ever since, they have lived a “nomadic” lifestyle, travelling between Europe and East Africa — he pursuing his painting, she researching land issues on both sides of the Kenya–Uganda border.
Returning to Kenya this past week specifically for the opening of the African Portraits exhibition, Mutebi had known for a year that his paintings were going to be in Wekesa’s curated show. “She had seen my portraits when I exhibited at the Banana Hill Art Gallery, something I always try to do whenever I’m back in Kenya,” the artist told Business Daily.
One of the founder members of the Banana Hill Art Studio, Mutebi has been working with Shine Tani since 1990 when he first discovered they both lived in Banana Hill and both were self- taught artists. “I had seen him featured on one of the first TV art shows and so I was amazed when one day he was sitting right next to me in a matatu heading for Banana Hill.”
Crediting Tani with showing him everything from acrylic paints to the palette knife, Mutebi is modest about how much he already knew about painting and drawing when Tani initially invited him home to share his space and art materials as well as his food and family life. “Tani and Rahab (his wife) are like family to me,” admits Mutebi. Working in close quarters with Tani for years before he left for Belgium, Mutebi had watched his workshop cum studio grow, only to be frustrated by the Kenya government which refused to register the studio for fear it would become a political party.
“So we had to register as a self-help group, not a gallery, which meant we could not receive assistance or support from anyone; we had to be a non-profit, which limited our activities quite a bit,” Mutebi recalls.
But government troubles were only one facet of the problems the studio faced in the early years. “I was gone until 2004 when I came back to Kenya and found one member trying to take over the group, now that we had begun receiving funding from the Ford Foundation.”The situation wasn’t pretty; it was petty and compelled Mutebi and Tani to involve the local chief who had been given a fake list of Banana Hill Studio’s founding members. In a sense, Mutebi had returned in the nick of time since he was able to expose the interloper, a local artist who had been in the UK and had returned home with a big head and bigger ego.
Fortunately, they weathered the storm. “That is why I feel compelled to support the Banana Hill artists whenever I come back to Kenya,” Mutebi said.
Currently based in Kampala where he paints and shows his art out of his studio, Mutebi doesn’t display his work in any of the Ugandan galleries. He feels that much loyalty to Banana Hill and to Tani. Participating in the African Portraits exhibition isn’t a contradiction, however, since the two Sebei women in the show were first shown in Kenya a year ago at Banana Hill. Plus Wekesa had informed him that she would love his portraits to be part of the current show. “Those two were reserved by Camille at the time,” he said. One of Kenya’s most cosmopolitan artists, Mutebi doesn’t claim accolades or adulation for himself, although he does admit he won awards in primary and secondary schools in Kakamega.
“But at that time, I didn’t even know what a gallery was, leave alone that there was a thriving art scene in Nairobi.” What he did have some familiarity with was the fact that art could earn him money. “I used to draw portraits of famous musicians like Bob Marley and Franco and sell them to my teachers for up to Sh800,” he says. Arriving in Nairobi during the days when Ruth Schaffner was still holding her monthly artists’ day at Gallery Watatu, neither Mutebi nor Tani got along well with Schaffner. “Tani didn’t like the way she bought Kenyan art for very little then sold it at much higher prices. He felt she was not benefiting the artists,” Mutebi recalls. His problem with Schaffner was more aesthetic than financial. “She was very specific about what she wanted from artists, what subjects they should paint and the way they should paint them. I couldn’t go along with her style, although there were some Banana Hill artists who did.”
Schaffner endorsed the notion of African art as “primitive” and “naïve”, which gave artists like Tani and Mutebi incentive to branch out and define their own style and aesthetic.
Yet as cosmopolitan as Mutebi has become, his heart will always be in Kenya, which is one reason why he and his family moved back to work in Kampala. Fortunately, that also means Mutebi will be crossing over into Kenya and spending more time in Kitale, which is where he first met the Sebei and continues to paint portraits of them.