Part I: The Meeting.
I first met Elias Mung’ora at January’s dusitD2 Nairobi Gallery Exhibition. I noticed his work as the evening was coming to an end, and the first painting that I saw evoked… something I can’t really explain… in me. It was a scene from the city, and I could almost imagine myself standing within the painting as I looked at it: waiting to cross Wabera Street and watching vehicles approach and people walk towards Steers and Trattoria on the other side. But then there was also a green haze hanging over the scene, making it feel like the whole thing would have been happening in a dream.
This surreal, dreamlike character is shared by many of Mung’ora’s paintings of the city. There is not one thing in particular that screams “Nairobi” or even “Kenya” in them: cars do not have number plates and brand names are not featured. But when two acquaintances and I attempted to figure out what was so familiar about the images we came up up with a few suggestions: it could be the color, for instance, swirls of blue on a bus hinting that it belonged to the Kenya Bus Service. It could be the people: something about their clothes or about the women’s figures. Or something else: maybe the brown reminding you of the dust and the dirt of downtown Nairobi. Whatever it was, it was unmistakably Nairobi.
Part II: Beginnings.
And so, a few weeks later, Tosh and I end up in his Brush Tu Studio, in Buruburu. “I tell stories of the city,” he says as he walks us around his space and lets us see some of the work he’ll be showing at his “Journal Entries: Nairobi” exhibition at The Little Art Gallery starting this coming weekend. He’s wearing a brown shirt and pants with splotches of paint all over them, and sandals. He shares this studio space with four other artists, but mostly uses it to store his work rather than paint. You are more likely to find him painting at home, about two minutes away.
Elias moved to Nairobi from Nyeri soon after graduating from secondary school. Because of this ‘foreignness’, he tends to notice minute details about the different neighborhoods in Nairobi. It also seems to have liberated him artistically. When he returns to Nyeri, he tells us, he doesn’t feel the same desire to paint landscapes as he does in Nairobi. This statement reminds me of a thing that another visual artist, Longinos Nagila, said in a discussion recently, about how his moving to Nairobi from Busia as a child afforded him a certain kind of artistic sensitivity, and I find myself thinking how our discussions of the “African Immigrant Experience” in art and literature might sometimes sideline the many tales of migrants within the countries themselves.
Elias has been drawing since he was as young as four years old and in nursery school– when he would doodle in books and draw on walls and get into trouble for it both at home and at school. At home, his father worried that his academic learning would be stunted by his interest in drawing and tried to dissuade him, sometimes punishing him. At school, his teachers worried the same and tried to prevent him using school rules. But he was undeterred, and for years would keep drawing “illegally”, even through most of high school, when he would sketch calligraphy on envelopes for his schoolmates. Eventually, though, worry about possibly failing his final high school examinations and disappointing his parents led to him burying his head in his books for the final stretch.
He was then accepted to Technical University of Kenya to pursue a degree in Real Estate and Property Management, which saw him move to Nairobi for the first time. And here is where I discover something that I’ve been suspecting for a while from our conversation: that he is very politically conscious, even though his paintings might not appear to be overtly political.
Elias didn’t stay in school for too long, and it was not (just) a passion for his art that caused him to drop out. Rather, it was a sense of disillusionment and of disappointment with the university system he was in. Sometimes lecturers would fail to attend classes for most of the semester and yet, somehow, everyone in those classes would get a passing grade. Other times students would cheat and get away with it, or facilities would be in poor shape. Not too long ago, a friend of his, a brilliant student studying engineering, was forced to drop out after it was announced that his course was not certified by the Engineering Board of Kenya. The system was broken, and it seemed that people at all levels had bought into it. And this feeling– that most of us are actively or passively complicit in a failed system– reflects his philosophy on modern Kenyan politics.
So two years into his degree program, he dropped out, only telling his parents his decision a few months later. As he tried to figure out this full time artist thing, he survived by taking on a number of jobs– tattoo artist (with questionable means), cooking and selling mandazi– and started trying to sell his art to galleries. But it didn’t seem to be working out, and after trying and failing several times, Elias decided to move back to Nyeri, leaving behind his dream of art to be a farmer.
Part III: A Few Strokes of Serendipity.
The story would have ended there were it not for a bit of serendipity. He had just returned to Nyeri, just getting ready to settle into the farming life, when he received a call from someone who had seen his work on Facebook. She wanted him to design a few pieces for her home. He said yes, put his bags back together and returned to Nairobi, and has not looked back since. (Coincidentally, I discover that the person whose call shifted the trajectory of this story is my cousin Anne– oh hey Anne!)
Things seemed to shift after that. Not immediately, but bit by bit. The gains are small but incremental. Today, his parents are starting to come around as he makes an income from his work. Some of his relatives worry still; they encourage him to go back to university to get a degree, even offering to pay for his degree. But he has his sights set on a different goal, and is making slow but steady gains towards it. While he can’t say for sure what this will be in five years time, I have a feeling that he’ll be making a lot of beautiful things on the way there.
First thing you ever drew: a chicken and a duck on the wall at home. I was in nursery.
Best part of this job: the results and seeing people’s reactions.
Challenges: struggling with creative components and creative blocks, or when his art is not appreciated.
Dreams of: creating art that is accessible to everyone, not just those within the establishment
How can corporates/ the government support your work? Establishing a public gallery or space in town where you can see artists work and interact with them. And having it be free of charge to get into.
“Journal Entries: Nairobi” runs from 27th February to 20th March at the Little Gallery in Karen, Nairobi.