There may appear to be no demand for the arts in Kenya, as the trope of broke and starving artistes continues to persist in our society. But some artistes show us that with hard work and dedication, art may be as fruitful a career choice. One such artiste is Adam Masava, who is an entrepreneur, artiste and champion of arts education. He is founder of the Mukuru Art Club, which has provided holistic art education to countless children in the blighted area of Mukuru and its surroundings.
“When I was growing up, there were a lot of challenges in the slums. The two biggest challenges were crime and drug abuse among young people. Art allowed me to stay out of this trouble,” he said.
His journey as an artiste began in his childhood when he attended art lessons at the Mukuru Youths Arts and Crafts, which was run and funded by Sisters of Mercy, an Irish catholic charitable organisation.
Children would sell their work to volunteers and visitors to the project, which Adam did. “Through that, I saw that art can allow you to earn an honest living and also sharpen your skill and become a better person,” he says.
But this was just the beginning of his remarkable journey. Adam says his younger brother was a talented footballer, and was subsequently signed by a football club in the Czech Republic. Adam made a thank you card for the club’s president, who was so impressed by its creativity that he invited Adam to travel to the Czech Republic to exhibit his work in 2008.
Within an hour of his exhibition opening, Adam had managed to sell every painting he brought with him from Nairobi. Most people would simply sit back and enjoy their newfound riches, but not Adam.
“I was given a lot of cash. I did not know what to do with it. I figured that I would give some to my family, and some to my friends. In the end, I still had a lot of money left. So, I reasoned that since art allowed me to stay out of trouble, why don’t I start something that would impact children to do art and also help them sharpen their skills? This was the begging of what is now the vibrant collective of artistes at the Mukuru Art Club,” says Adam.
Adam began by teaching children in a classroom at Mariakani Primary School. However, the large number of children wanting to attend his classes made teaching difficult.
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“I did not have a structure, it was chaotic. I had a group of 100 children coming in, and I had no records or anything to back my teaching. So, after that class, I came back and started putting things together in a more organised way.”
In 2010, Adam reduced the size of his classes, received funding from Good Neighbours Kenya, and started offering Mukuru youth art and life skills. In 2015, his students started participating in art competitions like the Toyota Dream Car Art Contest. Isaiah Mulunga won the international competition in Japan in 2014, and Alex Mungare won the national competition in 2021. Today Mukuru Art Club members are Adam’s most talented students and collaborators. They have their studios on Mchumbi Road.
I visited the studios and was amazed by the variety of work, ingenuity and outrageous talent of some of these artistes. Young Mika Obado, for example, creates pieces out of eggshells which he paints, crushes, and assembles on paper.
Isaiah’s talent for realism and his paintings of school children are simply mesmerising. There are paintings of every genre and style imaginable at the club, all made by hard-working students and mentees of Adam. What Adam has done is not just educate and impart artistic skills to young people, but empowered them to rise above their circumstances. The Mukuru Art Club is a self-sustainable business run by members of the collectives themselves, as they pay the rent for their building collectively out of their profits.