How the paint brush earns artist a living

Anthony Kiige, a talented artist in Nairobi's Embakasi during an interview with Standard. [David Njaaga, Standard]

Deep inside a ghetto in Nairobi’s Eastlands, Anthony Kiige calmly moves his paintbrush across a canvas board, slowly but surely producing a beautiful painting of forest birds floating over a thick canopy. The painting is beautiful to say the least. That I can witness someone so down to earth meticulously produce a work of art that reminds me of the likes of the storied Van Gogh leaves me pleasantly astonished. Tony’s studio, dubbed Master Craft Interiors, is located next to his single-room house in Nairobi’s Tassia estate. It is here that the realisation that he could draw and paint dawned on him, he was still in school at the time. Today, painting has become his sole means of livelihood. 

Talk to us about your journey as an artist…. When did you realise you have magic in your hands?

I began this journey in primary school. When I started, I never knew this was something I would entirely depend on. I would do funny drawings on a plain paper just for fun. No one really taught me. As you know, if you told any parent that you wanted to be an artist, they would not spare you or buy the idea. I was really into arts; drawing different virtual objects such as churches, houses, vehicles and many others. I drew until Standard Six, then paused for a while, not because I was tired, but because no one was really paying attention to me. Sometimes you just need somebody to encourage you to keep moving, but most of the time that was not the case. That is the reason I paused. After some time, probably around 2016, I came to think about my art after trying so many things to earn a living but failed. I had to come back to my “office”, so this is the pure talent that gradually grew inside me, and it’s not something I was taught in school.

So how do you price your art?

All these art pieces are of different sizes; so the prices vary as well. The prizes also vary according to the market and time. A medium piece of art on a normal occasion, would go for Sh35,000 but because of the diminished incomes many of my clients are facing during Covid-19, the price has gone down to Sh10,000. The price as you have seen really varies from time to time. The small art item would go for Sh15,000 but right now the prize has gone down to Sh5,000. The bigger sized ones cost Sh40,000. So long as its an oil painting, be rest assured there is good money. That is why most of the time I use oil paint to attract my customers. The market is also competitive.

Talking of the market…..Who is your target market?

When you look at my pricing, definitely my target market has to be high and middle-income earners. In this industry, I have realised that most of my clients always want to pay in instalments. So I price while putting in mind the cost of the payment duration. In order to reach a bigger clientele, I have decided to also concentrate on selling my art pieces online. I also exhibit my products on stands along major roads. However, this avenue of selling the items is not very effective but at least some of the pieces get noticed.

Your hands are gifted, I must say. Are you using your talent to mentor anyone?

Yes. So far, I have mentored almost seven students. There are even some working in my studio right now. I have six boys and a girl who are under my mentorship programme. One of the students is currently out on an assignment. Once I am convinced that one is fully equipped with enough skills then I release them to start their own project. I feel so motivated when I see someone who I have mentored do so well and work with us here at Master Craft Interiors. In fact, with the current situation, most of the youth have lost their jobs and are just idling in the estate. I equip any youth who is passionate about art here in the ghetto. As a result, they use art to escape poverty. I believe this will aid in reducing cases of theft and drug abuse among youth here in the slum.

What is your driving force?

Just passion. The love for this career is just on another level. I doubt if anyone would ever convince me again to do something else apart from drawing. Passion is where I get the strength to work even harder. Persistence is also important. Masters Craft Interior is where it is right now, not because I had the money but because I persistently pushed harder, and that’s when my efforts started to get recognised. Continuous hard work and putting my all to it, is what has brought me this far.

What are some of the challenges you go through in the industry?

Our studio is not well established. Sometimes we are forced to operate from outside.  We don’t have an office space where we can even schedule meetings with our clients. It’s so embarrassing receiving a client and then all you can do is take him to a corridor in an incomplete building. Secondly, the charges for the exhibition are so high. We would like to exhibit our products during international art events so as to get but we can’t afford it. Some exhibitions charge up to Sh20,000 a day. For a small enterprise like ours, that is quite high. We would like the government to allow us, upcoming artistes, to exhibit our products at no cost. More so, it would be beneficial if we had a gallery where we can refer clients. So if the government or any private entity could aid us, we would appreciate it.

What is your advice to any up-and-coming artist?

Have patience, work hard and never give up. It is a journey so don’t get discouraged along the way. Hard work never goes unrewarded.

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