Massai Mbili

Sanaa Mtaani - Kunst in der Stadt

Maasai Mbili

Interview with Otieno Gomba,‭ ‬Kevin Irungu,‭ ‬Andrew Njoroge

Interview: Nadine Lorenz


Kevin Irungu
Otieno Gomba

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.

Andrew Njoroge

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.‭

Andrew Njoroge: 3 Wise Men Crossing River Jord

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.‭

Andrew Njoroge: One Maasai Mbili

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?


My head.‭

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.‭

Andrew Njoroge: Shifta

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!

Andrew Njoroge: Sterro

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.‭

Einblicke in die gegenwärtige Kunst Nairobis.

Dieses Projekt wird gefördert durch die Stipendiatische Projektkommission der Hans-Böckler-Stiftung