Bakhita Sheni. (Courtesy)

Bakhita Sheni is an award nominee, a recording and performing artiste, painter; stage and set designer thus has had her work featured on publications such as Vogue. Multidisciplinary artiste Bahkita Sheni, 24, reveals her challenges in the art business in Kenya, thoughts on Crypto, battling mental health, being queer, and more, with Alfayo Onyango.

Khita, congrats on your recent Sondeka EA Awards nominations for Disruptive video with Chamomile: Pye. I want to get into crypto first however, have you been active in that space?

Khita: Thanks. Yes, I have, but when I first heard about it (late last year), I had a lot going on so I thought to myself – this looks like something that could take a lot of time to perfect, understanding charts and all. So, I decided not to focus on trading but on my art and sometime around February, I started seeing people putting work out on NFT’s. I looked into it, and it made sense, so I started familiarising myself with painters, foundations that help artistes get NFT’s, and around April I decided to open a wallet. I got on a foundation, but I have not started minting my pieces, but I am working towards that.


What are your thoughts on how NFT’s work?

Khita: I have been painting - practising art for the longest time, but this really changes the way we push our art, bringing it back to a tech space. It is very liberating, in as much as it is a lot to learn. We can finally price our pieces at their worth, and not have to negotiate or go against what we have priced them. Besides that, painters like myself can still mint our original pieces, as it is not limited to digital art; you can translate the original piece into vector files or photoshop, and this is helpful for surreal painters like me. 


Yes, it is true artistes have had to compromise on their value, and accept the low-ball of ‘exposure’ as a payment means. What are some of the challenges you experience as a surrealist painter based in Kenya?

Khita: Obviously, there are limitations to doing dream works locally, such as it not being so popular here. People still have a hard time comprehending it. There are galleries that do not see our worth - they take 40 per cent of what we sell. But you gain from these learning experiences. I have learnt a lot from gallery spaces about the Kenyan market, including how to price my work, and a lot of resilience as well. This is because you work hard on that stuff and no one is buying it when you see that there is an appreciation for it elsewhere. Also, galleries do not have tolerance for nudity and that kind of stuff, and you know my work focuses on bodies and dreams, it just forces you to look for a new market.

Bakhita Sheni. (Courtesy)

Perhaps the prices could be too high? What is a ballpark amount on how much you commission your pieces for, and is there criteria for how you arrive at that rate?

Khita: (Laughs) It depends on the people. I have two ranges – one is for artistes like myself and the second is for consumers and corporate. For people who have jobs and corporates, they can be able to afford it so I price it a bit higher. As for creatives and artistes or fans who appreciate these things, I sell prints to them so that I can maintain integrity. I can print those according to how big anyone wants them - between Sh5000 to Sh7000. For the paintings, they start from Sh30,000 to Sh70,000, depending on size. There is one about 1m by 200cm, which could be about Sh250,000, but my cheapest are the prints.


Where are you currently based in case I or fans want to come and check out the art?

Khita: I am currently working from home as I organise different exhibitions. I also have performances, so when I sing I come with the pieces, and people can enjoy the whole shebang. I had a studio but Covid-19 forced us to close down. I will be reopening a space that will double as a house and studio, or you can catch me on the Gram.


The last time we spoke, you were actively championing for mental health, tackling depression mostly. How did that affect you and your work, especially working in a creative field and a lot of it is hinged on your mental space?

Khita: Yes, we would run into each other and it was hard to tell I am going through things. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we have to keep people around us happy, and even if I was going through sh*t you would never know. You have to be in really enclosed spaces to find out I am not okay. But yes, it was a tricky space because when you’re going through those illnesses, as a creative it makes it harder to work, and for a long time, I was dreaming more than actually executing because of those blockades. And even when I worked through it, I was not really enjoying the work because anxiety was real, so I just started challenging the sadness and feelings through my work. I would always try to go through a piece so that I finish going through what I’m going through and make sure that I find peace with it. Personally, as of now, I do not look back, I do not allow myself time to ruminate, because if I do that for a day, it will be a year, you know? If the work is trash, fine, cause what matters is that you are putting out the work, your work keeps going further and further.             


And how about being queer, what is your perspective on that fight looking like right now in Kenya? Were not you a victim of physical abuse at J’s Club once due to your sexuality?

Khita: That is a lot. Where do we even start? (Laughs) We are facing misogyny, sexism, colourism; we are facing so much. The biggest for me is the gatekeepers. There are actual people that have been playing favourites, and not promoting people. In Nigeria, they really support each other from the younger to the older generation. If you are not on the good side of these gatekeepers, you are done. These gatekeepers are finishing us.

In 2019, I was beaten up at J’s for kissing a woman. The askaris beat me after the LGBTQ Rights Act was repealed in court, they harassed us for having sexual orientation, it was sad. But J’s was closed down, so it was the only justice we got out of that.