Interview with Patrick Mukabi, artist at the GoDown Art Centre
Interviewers: Anna Lafrentz and Isabella Schulz
Could you first introduce yourself?
My name is Patrick Mukabi and I am basically trained as a graphic designer, but for the last 15-16 years, I have been doing fine arts. I'm based in Nairobi; I grew up in Nairobi and Mombasa. And I am a figurative painter, I paint human figures.
So you have been doing arts for a long time now. How did you become an artist, or how did you choose to do it for a living?
I went to a primary school in Mombasa and we had an English class, so you use art to write English words. You do a drawing and then you write a composition, and the teacher would mark it. So this school was very Catholic and they used images from the books from Vatican, and things like that. And then, I think when I came back to Nairobi again, I went to a high school where art was very much a part of the whole thing. And I think just naturally I either would have become a drawing teacher or a physicist.
Did you have art education at school?
Yes, right from primary school.
And if I get it right, at the moment, it is not a part of the curriculum?
Yes, it was stopped later on.
And do you have any explanations why it is not a part of the system anymore? Do you see a lack in it?
I think the idea was that they said that art was not that important. And then, they say people draw in biology, they draw in geography and also in history. So that is enough art; that is what the feeling was. But they forget that most of the artists right now went through the system and it is very important to be out there. The ‘eight-four-four-system’ was broken and music, art and agriculture were very much a part of it – this was how musicians, famous musicians like “NameLess” or “Issa” came out. And later, they just decided to cancel it. But if you go to the schools right now, there are three to four classes for art every week. But during those classes, they do either maths or English.
What inspired you to pass art education on to the younger generation?
I think it is because when I was based at the museum, we used to have visits from the children's homes and after touring the museum, they would come and dance, and art became part of it. And then again you realize that the budget was not important. So I just started to create a program. When we work with children, they don't need money to buy a lot of stuff; we came up with things around the museum. They can use things around the house, in school, or where mummy and daddy work.
And why do you think art is so important?
Basically, I have seen in my experiences that if you do art, you become a creative thinker. Even in life, they start to think in a creative way. So if somebody is bullying a child in school, the child will look for a solution on their own before going to their parents. If he wants to go to the shopping centre and there is a problem, he looks for another solution. So it makes the child very critical and everything else. Because each painting is a problem that needs to be solved. That is how art is a part of life. It helps us to express ourselves.
How long have you been teaching children at art education?
I have been working with kids now for the last four years, a lot of kids. With kids, I work maximum one hour. After one hour, they can't think anymore. But I usually try to get the child to become the one who drives the class, not me. If you force them, it becomes silly maybe. If you let the child decide, they become more interested and from that point on, they start discovering that computers are also a part of the school right now. So several times I tried to include the phone and a computer in class. We can do a simple painting class, take a picture with the phone, and put it on the computer and animate it with the same program.
What's your vision of society if you say that everybody can enjoy art and art education?
Things become easier to solve, problems become easier to solve, and also creativity in society is always good. For example politicians, lawyers, and architects... the more exposed you are to art, the more ideas come to your head, your brain becomes much wider. I know it for a fact that when I meet clients who did art in school, it is easier to explain them why I do what I do. If I meet parents who have done art, they push their kids earlier to be interested in art as well. So the kid has an open mind. I was lucky, because my dad was also a musician and my mum is creative as well. So they told me “Do anything you want to.”
Coming back to you as an artist: What are your themes and what inspires you?
Basically, I am inspired by the human body. When I draw people, I usually work with light and shadow; I do sketches, I draw things I see on the way, people from where I live. I work with the posture and sometimes the story behind it. But basically I just like drawing human beings, this is my main theme.
How does the city of Nairobi influence you as an artist?
All my work is about Nairobi; mostly Nairobi and then Mombasa, because Mombasa is my second life or second place. From the way I paint life in Nairobi, everyday things in Nairobi: Sometimes day, sometimes night, clubs at night, I used to paint a lot of club life. Until some clubs banned me completely, so I don't go there anymore. They ask: “Why don't you drink alcohol” and I say: “My alcohol is gone.” But basically, all my work is actually influenced by Nairobi. It's the city where I was born.
How do you think people from Nairobi think about art?
From my exhibitions and my experiences, the more educated they are, the more they become conservative. I do a series of cover girls, for example. They come to my studio and I pay them to pose; I just try to capture the plus-sized woman. And I have put them up in some exhibitions. And the more people are educated, the more they feel that it is not good. The less educated people would be more interested in: “How did you manage to make the paint look like a person; how did you sculpt it?” If I paint women with a big bum and tight jeans, again the more educated feel: “Oh my god”. So the less educated, the more open-minded they are. That is how I get Nairobi a lot. I remember we did an exhibition at the French culture centre and on Sundays they had to cover all my paintings. Why? Because there is a Christian group that comes to pray and they don't want to see them. The national museum also, they tried to cover, but we found that if we cover, the people want to see. I did a show in Karen and some of my paintings were taken by the police. And I asked them “Why do you take the painting and not the artist?”, because I am going to paint another one. So it’s been like that.
Do you want to add anything?
But art is becoming better now. When I started, we had one gallery and there was a lady called Ruth Schaffner, she was the main. She actually didn't like my work, because she said, I painted like a European. But she is the one who sold my first painting. Now, any new artist can make it within one year. I had a lot of students here; after one year, they become very big. So now it’s more dynamic, competition is much bigger. And the audience is also increasing. I am selling more to the locals than before. I sell to doctors, lawyers, and even this way more than before.