Interview with Otieno Gomba, Kevin Irungu, Andrew Njoroge
Interview: Nadine Lorenz
Maasai Mbili (in translation; “two Maasai”) is a community based artist group that was founded in 2001 by two artists – Otieno Gomba and Otieno Kota who initially worked as sign writers in Kibera. With a population somewhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million people, Kibera is the largest Slum in East-Africa. In 2003, Maasai Mbili acquired a space, a two storey structure that was originally a pub, and turned it into a studio and a gallery in Kibera. Today, Maasai Mbili has eight active members and a handful of promising students/aspirant members. None of the members are Maasai. The group’s name rather gives a good image of the humoristic approach the Maasai Mbili group has to its work.
Can you introduce yourselves, please?
O.G.: I´m Otieno Gomba and I come from Maasai Mbili art studio in Kibera. I´m a visual artist, born and raised in Kibera. In 2001, we started Maasai Mbili and right now we are six artists working together in one collective.
K.I.: I´m Kevin Irungu – that´s my birth name – and my alias is Kevoo Steroo. I´m stupid and foolish and perfect in that. I´m part of Maasai Mbili. I work on a painting-paper called "The Daily Kibera", and it´s all based on the stupidity and foolishness of everything. I´m a just guy.
A.N.: My name is Andrew Njoroge and I´m based in Kuona Trust Art Centre. I´m here on a residency. I´m a painter and do a couple of things; I make some beats on the computer and also do some animations.
Can you tell me something about Maasai Mbili? What kind of place is it in general and for you personally?
O.G.: I´ve been in Maasai Mbili for the last twelve years, since we started. I´m one of the founders. It started, because we needed a space for visual artists and for us to work together. Right now, it´s like a link to the world. We meet with many people, and artists come here. Maasai Mbili was there to fill a gap between art and society.
K.I.: It´s an example of me. It´s what he said. I´m part of what happened in between Maasai Mbili. But now it´s family, a community, a shrine, a church and a free area. Police don´t come here and you can smoke. But apart from that, it´s actually an inspirational place. It makes people like you come here. It´s very difficult to explain, but it´s a place where you come and feel safe. If you hear about Kibera that it is like this, Maasai Mbili is not a part of Kibera. It is in Kibera, but not part of what you hear about Kibera. It´s here, you come here and you maintain, you feel free and good. Maasai Mbili is the best place, it´s the place that will keep peace with the paintings and all the things. I don´t know, I can´t explain.
It´s more like a feeling?
K.I.: No, it´s more practical because it´s made by the people, by society. We are hired to do paintings, but we don´t get paid. We do paintings on the streets as Maasai Mbili, and later people come and ask us to do things for them. When we ask them for paint, they don´t have any. We can´t do it without paint, that´s why it´s an impact on the community.
A.N.: It´s an art centre where artists can come and they provide a place to work. I´m here as a resident and learn from them. We´re doing a couple of projects. I make flutes.
How does the place work in your daily life? Do you have opening hours?
A.N.: Actually, I sleep here. I´m working with some paintings and some days I work overnight. Also with the flutes, I was working till the late hours or into the night, and it´s quite safe, actually.
Does everybody have a key and can come along?
A.N.: Nobody comes, most of them live right next door.
O.G.: Maasai Mbili is like an "every day today" life, because it´s usually open from morning to morning. It´s a space where artists go, get together, and get inspired. It´s usually open 24hours, seven days a week. It´s the passion that drives the artists. You don´t have routines. We don´t have to put rules like “You should be here by this time”. Only when we have deadlines, which we usually have, then we need to. But then you´re free to come in any time of the day.
What kind of deadlines do you have?
O.G.: If you have commission work that involves the collective, or you have an exhibition coming on.
Who are the people asking for something?
O.G.: We work from the community level to the international level. For the community, we have people coming around, and they ask us to do their portraits or they commission us to do their signs. Because originally, that´s how we started. We used to do sign paintings on the streets. That´s why you find a lot of written things in our art. If people are coming from outside, it will be art lovers, fans. We have a small clientele who really follows what we´re doing. Our art is not restricted to the international scene, only. It´s based on the locals and spreads out.
What is the content of your paintings?
K.I.: The whole studio is about street art, about taking street art to the gallery. We work on human, content and colour. I work on the "Daily Kibera", that´s a paper, even though it´s not registered. It´s what I see and what I hear. There´s something called "tu mi a kichwa". There´s two things, you have either to use your brain or your head. Which one would you choose?
K.I.: I would choose my head, too. The brain is too complicated. That´s why all the parents say 'use your head'. I work on the 'use your head'-idea. I can´t paint a nice smell, but I can paint something like that. In the beginning, we did street art and now we do street art for the gallery, for the elite community.
And how do you feel about it? Was this your goal?
K.I.: It´s very funny because the first exhibition we did, the three of us, I was very short. They were the bosses back then, and it was put down after two weeks. And they said, these things were for the streets not for the gallery.
Who said that?
K.I.: The owner of the restaurant, the management said that this wouldn´t fit.
Has it changed by now?
K.I.: Now, it´s crazy because we don´t mind. They can´t do anything.
What does that mean?
K.I.: The managements, they have to exhibit or say no. But it makes sense now, like Gomba, it´s the same street art. Okay, it actually had changed a little, but they can´t say no again.
K.I.: I don´t know, it´s a fact. It works like this. When I work on the streets, I can´t do something like this. I have to make it better for them to do a street art. Do you know about street art? About doing a sign paining? There are rules! It´s no rules for the people, it´s your rules. You have to make it beautiful; you have to have the best colours. That´s the basics. You have to have the character. If it´s a hospital, you can´t make someone happy in a hospital. But the point is, they don´t tell you, not to do that, they say you are the boss.
This is street art for you?
K.I.: Yes, this is street art. It´s spontaneous art. You walk around with paints and everything, looking for work. You tell your mother, when you are 17 years “I´m going to look for a job” – “With paints? What job do you get with paints?” – “A thinking job” – “You can carry stones here” – “I want a thinking job, I want to paint the stones afterwards”. It´s harder than the other work. You should ask someone else, or I just talk and talk.
What are you doing and what´s the content?
A.N.: I start with the portraits, that´s something I do a lot. I´ve been doing portraits of the other members. So far, I´ve done three of them. I also try to get a feeling of Kibera in the portraits. I want to give the environment something. I´m also working on the flutes. They actually work, you can get a tune out of them. I try to do a collaboration with Maasai Mbili, where we make beats by using Fruityloops, and then provide vocals and make live music using different kinds of things.
What was your motivation to start the things you are doing now?
A.N.: Spreading a message, I guess. I have been a visual artist for some time, but I´ve an urge to do music, to say something, to experiment.
If there was a message for today, which one would it be?
A.N.: Although life has glitches, like my computer has one or two glitches, just stay positive, just change it and do it!
What’s the message of your art?
O.G.: My message, it transcends from political issues, family issues to issues within myself. But my message, basically, is that I love humans and everything. In every condition, I turn to humanity, even in the worst condition. In 2008, there was really a lot of violence in Kenya, after the elections. And in that time, we did a project called Art for Peace. A healing project which was initiated by us as artists in Kibera, and it was for bringing back the harmony and peace. There was a lot of drama amongst the children and a lot of drama with the people. That was one time I could mention that you could use art for various reasons, to a particular time. It came to international recognition that there are some artists in Kibera, and they were for peace, saying no to violence. Things like that. For one particular time, my message would be what´s really happening in this time. For example, if I should paint something now, I would paint something for Mandela, then next, I would still come back to Kibera. It´s really dynamic, but I love humans.
Was there violence in Kibera after the elections?
O.G.: Kibera was really bad. There were ruins everywhere.
How did the people come together after the violence?
O.G.: When things like that happen, it´s because of politics. And after the elections, people were going back to work and everything like that. Here in Kibera, the violence was rapidly through, like three days of burning and looting. And it cost the nation two years of loss. The people had to go back to life. Life has to continue. Because the people living here, they have been living here together for almost 20 years. People really know each other.
Do you think Maasai Mbili could be in another place than this one?
O.G.: Yeah, I think it could be in another place, but it fits to Kibera. We needed to have a space in Kibera. We needed to do it for ourselves in Kibera.
Do you advertise for Maasai Mbili and are there foreign people coming for painting?
O.G.: Sometimes, we really have to close the door, because the space is too small. This place used to have two stores, but it was squeezed. This is the foundation and we have to put another two stores up there. It´s small, but we could also be the link. It´s not a must to paint here. There are people painting at home and then bringing their paintings here. It´s a link, you can guide somebody.
What does the surrounding think about the place?
O.G.: The story of this place is very sad and very happy. This used to be a pub before Maasai Mbili came here. One dark day, six people were lynched in this place. There were youths hanging out in the pub, so the pub had to close down. After that, the place wasn´t rented for about two months, and then we approached the landlord and that´s how we first came here.
Do you pay a rent?
O.G.: We used to pay rent, and then we bought the place.
But what do the people think about the place?
O.G.: The people are now familiar with it. When I was growing up, nobody knew about a studio. For us, a studio was a place where you take photographs. Now, the kids know what a studio is. When we started, people were like “These two crazy people”, Maasai Mbili means two Maasais, “we don´t know what they are up to”. After we were here for two months, the landlord was already like “Everybody is telling me to take you out of that space, we don´t need them there”. But right now we have their appreciation.
Is there something else you would like to add?
A.N.: I´m just grateful to be here, given the chance to work with them. I think I´m happy. I hope we are going to produce some work.
O.G.: We came a long way. Coming from the street and going to an international level. It´s all just passion driving you. For me, it´s a great achievement to be here. And it´s not just an achievement. It´s like being there for what you feel and what you want. Through that, I´ve crossed borders, met people and that makes me happy every day.