Until 10 years ago, the word Kiamumbi did not exist in many people’s vocabulary. The tiny dusty village en-route to Kahawa West was just a settlement for workers of the last coffee farms 15 km north of Nairobi or those passing through to visit relatives and friends at the notorious Kamiti Maximum Prison.
The year 2000 saw a change in this as Richard Kimathi became the first artist to settle there. A bunch of artist friends would occasionally visit during weekend lunch, booze and informal critic sessions that over the next 3 years, Kiamumbi had 7 artists living in a radius of 5 km. First in were brothers Anthony Okello & Peter Walala, then came John Kamicha followed by his dad; first generation Kenyan artist Zachariah Mbutha, then Ogonga Thom & a little later came in Eric Origa 1000 km Lodwar.
Over the next couple of years, Kiamumbi developed both commercially and artistically. Improved infrastructure and new settlement also encouraged people to move away from the hustle & bustle of the city to the more serene environment.
With the 7 artists working daily in their individual spaces and regularly showing works in Nairobi, there was a lot of interest in the community and what started as curious visits mutated into “art pilgrimages.”
Though some artists have moved out for different reasons, Kiamumbi is bubbling more than ever before with dynamic artists studios. A visit takes you to four studios where you are guaranteed to find some of Kenya’s finest working.
Depending on which direction you come from, the first stop almost inevitably leads you to Kimathi’s studio. Kim works in one of the most interesting spaces an artist can have. His studio is a room that was meant to be a hair salon (studio) so has shelves and mirrors all over.
Regardless of his success, Kim is pretty modest. He always has time for visitors and it’s probably the only studio where you are guaranteed a cup of tea with honey and peanut butter sandwiches.
A run through his work and philosophy behind it leaves you breathless. You can never fail to notice his music collection.
A walk a mile down the road leads to “Plot 10” the compound that houses Okello’s studio. The complex is named so as it’s an almost identical copy of an estate by the same name from a Kenyan TV series of the 1990s.
As you walk through the gate, you don’t fail to notice the neighbours’ curious gazes. Okello is one of the most eccentric artists and isn’t shy making some of his creations in view of his neighbours. Some of which can be quite disturbing works; like those created for the Stereotype Exhibition Series. His space is quite inviting and has the constant smell of oil paints.
Okello’s works are deep and rich but he always talks nonchalantly about the process as opposed to the content. He’s also very experimental and whenever he takes a break from his work, it is to hang out with the neighbour’s cat that he seems to have “adopted” and never leaves his studio. We leave Okello’s & and head off to Kamicha’s.
Kamicha’s studio is tucked in a nondescript residential building that once you get in, are met by materials strewn all over the place. The space is cluttered with a little bit of everything, from khangas, paint, canvas, stretchers, wood and bicycle parts.
His work is very experimental and quite concept based. Kamicha’s almost always not sure what he’s working on at the moment but there’s always something he was on before you got in and he’s always got time to animatedly discuss the politics of the local art scene.
You never miss to spot that ‘controversial’ piece of literature in the space or a well reviewed author. The dude loves to read.
Next stop, Peter Walala. His studio and house are inseparable. Walala has an expansive garden where he does monumental works and he shuttles all over the space from the sitting room to the kitchen depending on what he’s doing.
A prolific sculptor, his space is littered with lots of logs, stones and some amazing papier mache pieces. A trip to the sculptor’s studio is always amazing and just being there as Walala playfully transforms his materials into sculptures is magical.
In between work, he takes time off to play with his golden retriever, Goldie.
Seeing four crazy (in a good way) artists in one afternoon is always refreshing and catching up afterwards – whether for a coffee or fine scotch crowns it all. It’s not everyday that you get to hang out with multi-talented award winning artists and it’s always worth the while.
Away from the art, these guys are funny! Kim holds the ultimate record of having the largest collection of music CDs (I wager a beer on anyone who beats this); Okello and Kamicha are cycling addicts and collect state-of-the-art mountain bikes. They do 100km like you’d do a shot of whisky; Walala, away from sculpting spends time dismantling and re-assembling the engine of his 1984 Fiat Uno.
These guys have made the rest of the world know there is a not-so-sleepy village called Kiamumbi somewhere on your way to the big bad prison 15 km north of Nairobi and sometimes, they make me wish I was their neighbour.