When Frida Kahlo said she painted flowers so they would not die, she was referring to the ability of art to immortalise people and objects.
Many years later, Nelson Musiomi, aka Nelly Mchoraji Gifted, a self-taught portrait artist, is using paper and coloured pencils to redefine art and immortalise people.
He is 30, and in six years of growth and persistence, has sold more than 3,200 portraits around the world. The Kayole-based artist talks of refining his craft and building an empire from scratch.
It is common to hear that art cannot sustain one in Kenya. What do you think?
I used to think so too. When I used to do menial jobs, I used to wonder what kind of a talent drawing was. I felt it was useless and not able to give me money.
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People still have a misconception that one cannot depend on art full time... that art can only be a side job. But I do it full time and it earns me money. And I am comfortable.
I make roughly Sh100,000 a month. After deducting all my expenses, I am able to save around Sh65,000. Coming from earning a living from manual labour, this is a whole different world. The pandemic has affected my business but not by so much.
Why choose art?
I think art chose me. In high school, I realised I enjoyed drawing more than anything. The teachers would ask me to do diagrams for the class because I was faster than anyone and did very neat drawings. After completing high school in 2008, and with no prospects for higher education, I began doing menial jobs. I would still draw but not as much as I wanted to. Then one day a friend asked me to make a drawing of his girlfriend so that he could gift her on her birthday. She loved the art so much that he paid me Sh1,000. And that was all the jolt I needed.
How did you net your first clients?
I started drawing and uploading my art on Facebook. People would leave comments about the drawings and ask how much I would charge to make one for them. And that is how I quit doing the manual jobs and got into portrait art full time. I also joined Instagram and many other social media sites where I started posting.
What was your startup capital?
With Sh1,000, I was ready to go. I bought coloured pencils at Sh250 and could buy printing papers, on which I drew, from the cyber café at Sh2 each. I used to charge Sh250 per drawing, then raised it to Sh500. This soon climbed to Sh1,000 as I progressed, and finally I capped it at Sh3,500. Most artists charge on the upward of Sh10,000, but I decided to stick at Sh3,500, shunning any desire to be greedy.
Do you have a studio?
No. I work from the house. I do not need a studio. You see, I do not do my art for exhibitions or for the art gallery. I draw portraits based on individuals' orders. Plus 98 per cent of my clients are online. It even saves me on unnecessary overheads.
What has surprised you the most about your business growth?
That I have had clients from the US, United Kingdom, Yugoslavia, Norway and a host of Middle East countries. I have so far done over 3,200 portraits and they are in all corners of the world. I use DHL and EMS services to get them delivered. Some of these clients have relations in the country and usually require that I deposit the portrait at their kin’s places, where they can collect the art. That said, my local market is the biggest. I have sold portraits to Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, Francis Atwoli, Rachael Ruto among a host of leaders. Someone bought a William Ruto portrait to gift him. Unity College in Buruburu also usually asks me to draw their Guest of Honour every year during their graduation ceremonies. I have also drawn countless celebrities, including the Boondocks Gang crew.
3,200 drawings are quite a number. Do you get help?
I have employed seven people. One does the frames for me, another mounts the art, then two bodaboda guys and another two deliver the art to clients. The last is the one I send out for materials I constantly need. Within six days of making an order, the customer can have the drawing with them.
What makes you stand out from other artists?
I do coloured portraits. Most artists just use pencil and fear use of coloured pencils. We are not more than three coloured pencil artists in Kenya, and I am the very best of them. That makes my work very unique.
What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced coming up?
In the Kenyan market, portrait art is not taken as seriously as it should. People mainly think about art in the gallery and exhibitions, including animal art. I also did not have a mentor coming up and as such, it was quite a journey to train self and become good enough to compete.
What is your ultimate dream?
Right now, I am the most sought after portrait artist in Kenya. I am now gunning to be the most sought after portrait artist in East Africa. I also want to start an art school because more than 400 parents have contacted me asking me to train their children because they feel they have potential. I would want to be an art manager and market artists who have talent but lack marketing might and know how.