The life and times of the ‘Maasai’ artists of Kibera

By: TOM ODHIAMBO

Otieno Gomba and Otieno Kota are two very unassuming individuals. In fact these guys don’t even look like the serious artists that they really are. You wouldn’t know that their hustle involves brushes, paint, majuala, plastic bottles, scrap metal, wood, material junk etc. Their only real wealth is art. But how many Kenyans care for art? What is art for? Can art change the world? Can it make one rich? What is art for if you are living in Kianda or Kibera? How can art be a hustle? Who makes money from art?

Artists are asked questions such as the ones above every day. Often artists themselves wonder aloud in similar terms. But an encounter with Maasai Mbili raises even more questions. For the art by Otieno Gomba and Otieno Kota and their fellow artists, who make up the Maasai Mbili community, is art that constantly reminds one about injustice, poverty, alienation, misery, violence, about dystopia.

But it is also art that rejects fatalism. The philosophy that seems to drive Maasai Mbili defies the anti-humanism that defines human relations today. It proclaims hope, aspiration, struggle, optimism or a continuous endeavor to (re)claim humanity.

It is the two erstwhile street artists and their fellow artists in the group that are the subject of a recently published art book, Maasai Mbili (Contact Zones Nairobi, 2015), edited by Sam Hopkins. The book is a collection of interviews, histories, statements and anecdotes about the members of the Maasai Mbili group. But there are also artworks, showcasing some of the works by members of the group too. But you may ask: so what; what is so important about Maasai Mbili?

METROPOLITAN SLUM

Not that many artists do matter to many Kenyans. But in a country where unemployment thrives and idleness is blamed for a rise in crime and violence, an artist may matter. This is precisely why Maasai Mbili matter.

Art gives meaning to life when one is faced with a cycle of seeming nothingness, as explains Kevo, one of the Maasai Mbili ensemble artists, in his statement, “Born and raised in a metropolitan slum, I grew up in a world of rush and rushing: casual workers up and down from six o’clock in the morning and until six o’clock in the evening; school children in the morning, lunchtime, and evening; bored vendors everywhere all the time”

In other words the life in the ‘hood eats up one’s patience and hope; the idleness becomes a second nature and such frustrations can only be expressed through art, as Kevo reminds us again in his dark humour from the Jobless Corner Campus, “Jobless corner campus is a non-profit local organisation whose concern is to fight for the rights of idleness and Idlers in Kibera.

J.C.C’s main objective is raising a community of idlers who believe in their ‘job’. It aims at developing the capacity of the residents to be more efficient and effective in the Idling profession.”

Such searing critique of the mainstream view of jobless youth as mere idlers shows that the young men and women actually understand their fate much better than those who analyse them from a distance, be they government policy makers, businessmen, politicians or the non-governmental organizations that they mock in the phrase ‘non-profit local organisation.’

But what does Maasai Mbili – therefore art – mean for the members of the organisation? The late George Ashif Malamba summarised it as, “ It’s beyond limits. Maasai Mbili is brothers. Maasai Mbili is house. Maasai Mbili is school. Maasai Mbili is a shrine, church. Maasai Mbili is everything. Maasai Mbili is unity. Maasai Mbili grows faster than anything individual. Maasai Mbili is to live life.”

Although this young artist died too soon, to use the cliche, he was clear about what art meant for him, his fellow artists and the neighbouring community. Isn’t this what art should mean to all of us?

CREATIVE JOB

Shouldn’t art, as this book, Maasai Mbili, reminds us, be a celebration of humankind’s co-creation of the world? Shouldn’t art be some kind of a rhetorical question on what human beings do to each other and to the environment?

Art should perpetually jolt us out of our dreams of peace, prosperity, happiness etc so that we may see how even though many of us do enjoy wealth, be secure and contented, the majority of humanity may never experience such benefits.

There is no doubt that Maasai Mbili art is political – it seeks to speak to questions of injustice, inequality, inequity, alienation, violence etc. But it is also pedagogical – it demands that both the artist and the admirer of the artwork learn something from the encounter between human beings and art.

Sam Hopkins does an immensely creative job at recording and archiving the history of the two non-Maasai and their community of artists and neighbourhood, their philosophies, languages and worldviews.

The translations of the writings and interviews in English into Kiswahili and Sheng will definitely make this book reach a much wider audience than it would have if it had just been in English. Maasai Mbili would make a great Christmas gift for art lovers or book lovers.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION