Interview with Dennis Muraguri, Artist at Kuona Trust Art Centre
Interviewers: Nadine Lorenz and Michau Kühn
Could you please introduce yourself.
My name is Dennis Muraguri. I'm an artist.
When was the first time you came in contact with art?
There were different times. Like I found out I liked art. 'Cause my uncle drew matatus and I liked it, and I started telling him to draw a matatu for me. And then one day, he got fed up and he did not draw one for me, and so tried drawing one for myself and the rest is history. He is not an artist, it was just a long time when I was a kid. I was a little boy when he drew the matatu. He was a bit older than me, because he was in school already. Young people for some reason like to draw. That's the first thought I can say I have about art. But then how did I become what is called an artist? I just knew I can do art and it was easy for me and it sort of felt like I was cheating. Nobody pushed me to do it. I just did it. I chose it. I didn't feel like I was working. Then I went to college in Nairobi to do the same and then I came out and just started “being an artist”. I've never done anything else in my life.
We do, too.
Yeah. Especially those really pimped ones. The ones that are very decorative. We call them manyanga. You see on that sticker manyanga music, mischief and mayhem. That's what they are about. They are about music, mischief and mayhem. So first, I liked the matatu. There's a lot of people that say Kenyans don't like art. That's why they don't buy art or something like that. But I discovered they do like art because we pay more money to get on a matatu that is more fancy than the rest. And those matatus have all this art on them and people like them. I will stop to look at a beautiful matatu. So people do like art. It's just that we are presenting our art in a way that is falling to the people. People are easier to be integrated with the art. Not the art being in a gallery. That's like the culture we come from. I don't hate the gallery. I would like the gallery and culture to grow in Kenya. The matatu also is reflective of the people themselves. And if you want to learn a lot about the Kenyan people, just follow a matatu or go around in matatus and you'll see o lot. Within the matatu and outside the matatu. And then the matatu itself is like a living thing. It's just a van, but once it becomes a matatu it gets a life of its own. Every day, it's in the news. It would be: “Matatu this, matatu that”. And it's not something you can escape in Kenya. Once you come to Kenya, the first thing you notice is a matatu. Yeah, there's a lot I can say about the matatu. Like, I can keep talking about the matatu.
Please, keep on talking.
And then there's a lot of, like, performances around the matatus. For me, that's the real performance art of Kenya. Street performance. Like, those makangas do crazy stunts on the matatu and I think it's something that you'll find only in Kenya.1 I think, it's hard for people to notice things. So I'm trying to pick on those small stickers on the matatu.
So what else would you say is the content of your art?
Content? Mostly, I don't sit and think: “Ah, let me communicate to these people”. I just think of an idea, I like it, I do it. Sometimes it communicates something, sometimes it doesn't. Like sometimes, a matatu is just a matatu. Sometimes, I'm using it to communicate something. I'm also sort of lazy, so I'm not a good campaigner for things. I would like to find a way to change, to take some things of the matatu and place them somewhere else. Like that dance that people perform on the matatu. So with the new laws2 and everything, the matatus will fade away and disappear. I'd like to find a way present them in a more positive way. Don't know if I'll be able to do that. It's just a dream, it's just one of those wishes. Yeah, and I'm also using the matatu because it's something familiar to people. It's not something I have to explain to a lot to people, to use it to do other things. Like the public art I'm working on. Something like that. If it works, it will be something for other people to think about. Sometimes, art is just to help other people to think. And yeah, maybe just to know that things are possible. Yeah, I think that's it.
Dennis, what kind of feedback do you get on your art?
People like to buy my matatu art. The one thing I know is the stickers I put up. People put up stickers in the matatu to sell things. And I find that some matatus remove them all. But I find my stickers intact.
Would you consider that a compliment?
That's a compliment.
There's one matatu, there was a competition some weeks ago, a manyanga competition, for the best pimped matatu.
You have a contest for that?
There is a competition for that. But it's very new and because there are a lot of rules for a matatu, I don't know how the rules work, but it's sort of illegal to soup up the matatus. But there were some really nice ones there, and the one that won a category is a matatu that had been repainted to another colour from the one I knew it to be. And it still has my sticker on it. So, that was a really big compliment.
Do the matatu drivers and owners know your art?
Some do, some don't. But, like the stickers I do for the public, they don't know it's me who does them. I make sure they don't see me putting up the stickers and all that. Because they are also very loud, so they get in the way sometimes and when I take pictures they'll start posing and I don't want that.
You studied art in college?
I studied art in college, but in our college it's like I came out of college not knowing a single Kenyan artist. It's not taught. I don't know if they teach it now but it was not.
But what did they teach?
A lot of Van Gogh’s and Michael Angelo’s.
Like lessons in history.
Yeah, if that’s history. But I don't regret going to college. So I came out of college and started practicing and I've never done anything else. Until now.
We have seen some parts of your art are in the public space. Why have you chosen the public space as your arena?
Because sometimes I feel like I want as many people to be willing to change their view - not even to change, but to just give something to people who would not necessarily go to a gallery. They don't even have to know that it's art or whatever. Just something they see. Maybe they like it or they don't, or they don't notice it at all. But I like doing it. I think I like the rush of doing something in public. And I like discovering new public spaces. Sometimes, I and many other people complained that in Kenya we don't have many public art spaces. But now I notice, instead of complaining, I can just find the ones that people can't. The ones that have not been taken yet. So, like the matatus. I did stickers about the elections and I put them in matatus. And maybe people get it, maybe they don't. I just put them in matatus because I know matatus. You can put a sticker in there and maybe they take it out later, but nobody follows you and tells you, you know, “Take it out”. Yeah, I think the government has not discovered the matatu space so I can still use it.
Why is it actually the matatu you draw so often? Is this maybe because of your uncle, or does it have another meaning for you?
I like matatus.
Where do you see the art in the public space in Nairobi in the future? Will there be more art the public space?
I think so. Yeah, there will be. 'Cause, I think that's just the way things end up being. There will be art in the public space because artist will do it. It may take some time, but there will be.
Because today, not all artists are in the public space. Only a minimum of the artist work in this area... It's a special kind of artists.
What do you mean by ‘special kind’?
The usual visual arts go to galleries or the like. But graffiti writers or what you do with your posters and stickers, and I don't know what else you do, it's like reclaiming public space. Just taking public space and giving it back changed – without asking for permission.
Ah, ok, like some public space is not really owned by anybody. It's when people find some use for it that somebody comes and grabs it and calls it their own and want to make money of it. Like, I know the matatus like they used to be beautiful on the outside. Right now, I hear people thinking about using them for advertising. So, you see, it was a public space that people just made their matatu beautiful to just please the public or themselves. But now, somebody else sees that that has worked so well and now they want to take that over and just mess it up with their moneymaking bullshit.
Actually, I've one last question about how you do your kind of art. I mean, we talked about the matatus, but you do so many more different things.
I do other art. Like, I'm doing this world map here from the inside. Or I take pictures and paint them. And I do woodcut prints. A matatu for me right now is good, because the subject does not change, but the content changes. So I can do a matatu, but every time the matatu tells a different story. So I like that about the matatu. And I’m not bound by technique or style, I can do a matatu in every style and technique in the world if I wanted to, and I want to.
When you say the story changes, what was the story in the past and what's the story now?
Sometimes, the van changes. Even the type of car changes. The kind of graffiti changes, the kind of art. There were a lot of labels on the matatus some time back. But nowadays, you find they’re more simplistic. Yeah, like, they also reflect on the international fashion trend. Yeah, so, it's just something that has a lot of layers on it.