By Kiundu Waweru
Whether you are a lover of art, or not, you probably have seen this painting: A man on top of a tree that is about to fall into a river. A crocodile with its mouth wide open waits in the water. On the other side of the river is an aggressive looking lion while slithering menacingly towards him is a snake. A caption beneath the painting reads, "You cannot escape death".
Another popular painting is one where men are drinking accompanied by voluptuous women. Usichanganye Mapenzi na Biashara (Don’t Mix Friendship with Business) reads a caption beneath the painting.
For a long time, such paintings with life lessons graced the walls of bars, lodges, butcheries, cafes, salons and barbershops. However, this form of art is diminishing, thanks to big corporates, which have taken up the walls. Wherever you go in the country today, you are confronted with bright corporate colours, ranging from mobile phone to detergent and tea leaves companies.
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Acknowledging this is former Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph, who, recently after six months out of the limelight, graced the launch of Wall Art in Kenya; a photographic book by Arvind Vohora, documenting this dying artwork.
"I feel guilty for the obliteration of wall art in Kenya," said Joseph to an amused audience at the Safaricom House art centre named, Michael Joseph Centre. Safaricom is one of the corporates that came up with the idea of commercial art which pushed off the urban art off the walls. Michael Joseph said they tried to use the wall art to advertise Safaricom but failed.
Then Arvind came up with the idea of documenting the wall art into a book, and sought Safaricom’s sponsorship. Joseph bought the idea as part of the firm’s objective of promoting art in Kenya.
"What Arvind has documented in this book is very special as you will never get to see this art again."
As a Kenyan who grew up in the 1980s surrounded by this art, which you might not have thought much of, the book is a gem. Twenty three years ago, Arvind, an award winning photographer, visited Kenyan hamlets, from Malindi to Mombasa to Thika to Kisii to Kakamega, photographing every wall art he found in bars, butcheries, restaurants etc..
"I wanted to preserve this kind of art, which you will never find anywhere else in the world," said Arvind during the launch.
At the time, he didn’t get a sponsor for the project and two decades later, he came across his old pictures, and voila. The art book, which is retailing at Sh3000, was born. Arvind says 10 per cent of the proceeds will go to Kuona Trust which he helped set up 15 years ago together with Rob Burnett.
The 170-page colour book is full of comical memories. As the introduction says, the artistic merit of the practitioners varied widely, from naÔve representations lacking in all proportion to highly stylized and creative human forms.
The message also varied. Some were "hard sell" like, this is a butchery and we sell meat", others held meaningful messages like the one in the opening paragraph.
According to Arvind, the wall art was borne out of a need for businesspeople to advertise their wares to an illiterate and largely visual audience. Today, however, Kenya is one of the countries with the highest literacy levels, perhaps the reason for the dearth of the art otherwise known as Urban or Street Art.
The book also features paintings from seasoned Kenyan artists, who began their careers as sign writers. These include Ancent Soi, Joel Oswago and Joseph Bertiers.
Away from the popular artists, the book takes you back in time, 20 years, (you know because of the photographed brands which no longer exist such as Tusker Export). There is even advertising for miraa. Well, you can’t make up this stuff, to quote one Kenyan TV host. I will keep my copy for posterity.