Young artists turn passion into income

Brian Gwako's painting. [Courtesy]

Armed with a brush, paint, pen and a canvas – their tools of trade – young artists are turning their hobbies into businesses.

With a flick of their brushes, they give life to their imaginations and chronicle everyday happenings.

They hope to make it a sustainable career and someday be renowned artists like Wangechi Mutu, Tom Mboya and Rosemary Karuga, who have put Kenya on the global visual art map.

Young artists like Chesta Nyamosi, Brian Gwako and Ian Banja are but a handful of self-made artists who get their daily bread from their craft.

Chesta Nyamosi ushers us gleefully into his house in Kibera’s Olympic Estate. Adorning the walls of his house are a number of his paintings which hang proudly.

In one corner of the room, painting brushes smeared in dried paint on the handles are bundled up in a container to dry after a hard day’s work of breathing life on the canvases.

He seems unperturbed as I settle down to interview him on his journey in art. Nyamosi is a young self-employed artist in Kibera whose journey started as an aching for self-fulfillment. Like many artists in his neighborhood, he depends on art to bring food to the table and pay bills.

From a family of artists, he got into art when he was young terming it as something he did best.

He only took it as a hobby when Uweza Foundation took him under its wings. The foundation empowers children and youth in areas such as Kibera and helps nurture their talents.

It supports young artists such as Nyamosi to sell their art and injecting the proceeds into his school fees.

To turn their hobby of painting into a business, the artists required an average capital of Sh30,000 which they used to buy paintbrushes, paint and a canvas. Like Nyamosi, Brian Gwako, who was also nurtured by Uweza Foundation, draws his inspiration from everyday life and its struggles.

“I take pictures when I pass through the slum and turn them into paintings. I want to show where we live and that we have talent,” he says.

Not only do they portray life locally, but international events and issues also inform their art so that they inform the people who interact with their craft.

Ian Banja drew inspiration from the global issue of police brutality to create his ‘struggles’ series. These artists cater to a wide array of clientele since they use different themes in their paintings, each telling a different story.

‘‘I don’t have a specific target audience, I target everyone,’’ says Banja.

This diversity has opened the artists’ horizons enabling them to cast their nets wide and get commissions which enables them to sell their art both locally and abroad.

Social media as a marketing tool is a common denominator among the three artists. They mostly use Instagram to market and sell their paintings. They sell their paintings based on size, complexity and materials used with the bigger pieces fetching tens and hundreds of thousands.

In terms of size, the price range for their paintings sells between Sh15,000 to Sh90,000. Not willing to reveal what they have earned through art, the artists skirted around the answer, saying they have so far been able to live comfortably off art.

Exhibitions are a major outlet for showcasing and selling the artists’ work. They have exhibited and sold their works in exhibitions, for example, at the Kenya Museum Society.

The artists have also showcased their paintings in international exhibitions.

Banja has had the opportunity to have his work showcased at the Cape Town Art Fair in South Africa, Lorin Art Gallery in Los Angeles and has an exhibition in Art X Lagos due in November.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it held the economy of the world by the scruff of its neck and threatened livelihoods. Gwako says he did not sell a single painting for a while. “Clients preferred to sustain themselves with what they had rather than buying a painting.”

The pandemic has also hampered or halted regular work and collaborations in most cultural and creative occupations and put a stop to international mobility and compromised the purchasing power of audiences.

The digitalisation of art would have been the course to save artists and help soften the blow for example, through the creation of Non-Fungible Token art (NFTs), but Kenya which is still playing catch-up in that sector is not there yet.

All was not doom and gloom as some artists used this period to sharpen their skills.

Nyamosi and Banja say that before the pandemic hit they did not take their art as seriously. The confinement to their homes ignited their passion and creativity.

The artists claimed the government does not support visual artists as they support, for example, musicians. They say they have received more support from the private sector and through organisations like the Uweza Foundation. They would love to see more support from the government in supporting artists.