Friday, October 22, 2010


(The new movement in town)

Mukabi aka Panye, Omar Kasongo, Muyela or to kids simply as Uncle Supuu is probably the most recognizable artist in the region (that’s debatable I know). Whether for his provocative paintings of ‘healthy women’ or for his physical presence. A walk with him in downtown Nairobi is always frustrating as he keeps on stopping to chat to everyone – from his models, school children, corporate CEOs to street urchins.

Trained as a graphic designer at the Creative Art Centre and The Kenya Polytechnic, he has had an interesting career. As part of the pioneers of what is now referred to as “the 2nd" generation of Kenyan artists, he came through the ranks in the early 1990s.

Few practicing artists; whether 1st, 2nd or even the emerging 3rd generation can claim to have not experienced him.

From the mid 90s at the museum studio, most artists out of school would find tutelage from him; from basics such as where to find cheaply priced art materials to exercising your skill on canvas, how to price your work to how to ‘talk’ to prospective clients.

15 years later and lots of water under the bridge, much has changed, and more has stayed the same. Most artists ‘get there’ and isolate themselves. They hide in their private studios and rarely attend other (read not very commercially successful) artists’ events; but Panye has remained – just Panye.

Coupled with the lack of free & easily accessible communal spaces for young/emerging artists, and the failure of local arts schools to adapt to a modern curriculum, most youngsters know only one place to go to for apprenticeship…. Studio ya Panye.

A visit to his space and you bump into a handful of young adults ‘learning’ from him. They come from all over because this is probably the only place where you can come in with basic skills, get art making materials, make your art and probably showcase it ‘with no strings attached.’

Some of them are very skilled painters from the hours spent alongside Panye. However as with any ‘master-student” relationship, most aspire to be like the master.

There seems to a new movement, Mukabi..ism.

Whether this is good or bad, am not so sure. The question is why do these youngsters decide only Panye can and not the numerous artists and art institutions in Nairobi?

In a show recently held @ Kuona Trust Centre for visual Arts, 10 of the 25 works submitted were by his students, with a large chunk from Kijiji Art Studios run by artist Mike Wafula (story for another day) and only one from the university.

A chat with some of them was that Panye’s studio provided a one stop shop for anyone with the intent of getting into art practice.

This is a crop of what may in future be referred as the 3rd generation of Kenyan artists and for sure there is a little bit of Panye in them. They paint like him; voluptuous women, similar palettes and look up to him as big brother, mentor and role model.

Some people are shocked when they walk into an exhibition and see familiar paintings only to see names like Kennedy Otieno, Alex Mbevo, Dickson Kaloki, Wilson Matunda etc.

Does this bother him? “Not at all,” Says he. “I just try to do what is right and if I end up having influenced a new generation of artists, I’ll have left my mark in the world. I also started out painting like Michelangelo but look at me now. ”

I cheekily refer to the movement as Mukabi…ism and he lights up saying, “That’d be fantastic. Imagine your kids studying me in art school. They’ll eventually discover themselves and life after my apprenticeship.”

Only time will tell.

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