At the age of eight, after partially losing her hearing ability, Kenyan contemporary visual artist Nadia Wamunyu realized she could record memories, experiences, tastes and feelings through drawing. Having made a name for herself in the Kanyan art scene over the past several years, she’s proud do keep her day job as it allows her to be unapologetic with her art, and to draw and paint what other people may call apocalyptic, depressing, or saddening.
In our interview with Nadia, she told us more about the Kenyan art scene, the distinctive portraits of female figures that she’s been creating with coffee in the recent years, and why she prefers to keep her day job than to bend to people’s expectations of her art. Enjoy!
For people who don’t know you: who are you and how did you get into the arts/ became a professional artist?
My name is Nadia Wamunyu from Kenya, and I am 29 years old. I started drawing as soon as I was old enough to hold pencils and watercolors. My mum bought me watercolors and brushes, and I started painting casually in the house at the age of three years. It was my way of withdrawing since most children could not understand me (according to my dad). My inspiration was my dad; he encouraged me to work with my hand as I was disadvantaged by my disability. I was born and grew up in Nairobi. When I was 14 in 2010 when I first went to study with Patrick. I was in my second year at a boarding girls’ school, but I spent all my time with him during school holidays and once I completed my O-levels, I was at the GoDown full time.
In all, I studied with Patrick for four years; but he wasn’t my exclusive source of inspiration since his studio was like an old-fashioned guild where a horde of other young Kenyans came regularly to learn from the Master, a gentleman who could rarely turn any aspiring artist away.
I’m currently a member of the Kobo artists studio best known as Seven Artists along Riara Road in Nairobi and spend some days at my new gallery in south C.
Please tell us a bit more about your work, especially the women in the movement that you paint with coffee with ink.
Experimenting with ink, mixed media on paper, pastel, and photography. My recent figurative ink works on paper are studies of myself, and a collaborative project with friends. I use my half-Nubian female body as a way to express my emotions, insecurities, and past experiences as a young African woman. From a broader perspective, these works address a serious identity crisis among most young African women who are not confident in their skin color or black bodies.
Creating mixed media studies of a muscular female subject in different half-squat poses, she uses her strong black body physique to emphasize strength and boldness. She also combines the mask, unusual hairstyle, black skin color, and fashion to highlight her confidence, at the same time some of her daily struggles as a young black woman; which include anxiety, self-confidence, and insecurities. This whole concept was drawn from the artist’s real-life experiences and specific case studies in Kenyan or African societies in general.
You wrote that after partially losing your hearing ability, you realized that you could record memories, experiences, tastes, and feelings through drawing. Was there a certain moment when you realized that or did that happen over time?
I have a condition called profound hearing loss, and I can barely hear without wearing hearing gadgets. I always tell my clients to be loud when talking to me. I lost my hearing at the age of three after a strong dose of antibiotics was administered by a doctor, so my twin sister Sadia Wambui became the family’s chatterbox.
The universe neglected my hearing but gave me sight and mind to work with.
Please share some of your creative processes with us, from an idea to a finished piece.
I advanced my practice by exploring different mediums and forms of expression through ink, coffee, pastel, charcoal, chlorine, mixed media, and photography. My recent figurative ink works on watercolor paper are studies of myself, a collaborative project with friends. I use my half-Nubian female body as a way to express my emotions, insecurities, and past experiences as a young African woman. From a broader perspective, these works address extreme cases of identity crisis among most young African women, who are not confident in their skin color and bodies. I’m also interested in narratives surrounding women, feminism, gender inequality, sexual harassment, discrimination, and mental health.
This is contrasts with the bold blues, browns, curves, and lines that form her hair and body. I think I particularly like blue because it’s the color of water, and the color we so often see is associated with healing. The wonderful brown you see is ink, bleach, charcoal, watercolors, and coffee.
On your website, I read: “I also can’t help but view artists as the third eye of society; this skill is like a pass to a special and unique dimension of the world and society, that I only can access.“ Could you please talk a bit more about that?
My art highlights the structures, struggles, and culture of society. I can influence people’s views and opinions by making them think and feel differently. My art is an eye-opener, as I love to see people challenge themselves to think differently and be more open-minded. I’d like to see a society where people not only appreciate the uniqueness of art but that of every living thing.
How is the art scene where you live and do you have the feeling that artists are given enough value there (or in general)?
The contemporary art scene in Nairobi is in the midst of intriguing change and growth. Now artists have decided since no one is doing this for us, we will have to be the ones preaching the gospel of art. The middle class will find that more Kenyans are buying art, the art scene is growing, and everything is in transition.
What are you currently working on / any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
I’m currently working on more Women’s bodies of work and continuing to apply for more good opportunities.
What advice would you give artists at the very beginning of their careers?
I am guessing that you mean earning a living from being an artist. I have never sold any pictures and don’t want to. The trouble with making a living from painting is that to sell; you have to pander to popular taste. It might sound like an easy life selling piece, but it is like most jobs. It involves repetition and sometimes painting things you are not very interested in. I know of an artist who earns quite good money but wishes that someone didn’t have to paint yet another landscape with crashing waves, just because they sell well. So the kind of artist I would like to do not have to make things that are nice and pretty for money. I like to paint and draw things that many would find apocalyptic, depressing, or political, and reflect things that make me angry or sad. I need to keep my day job.
And last question: what are your hopes for the future?
My hope is art project would be to open a massive project for my solo exhibition and my gallery.
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Written by Nadia Wamunyu & Nina Seidel
Edited by Nina Seidel
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