Nestled between Kibera Town Center and Kamukunji grounds, a dusty field known for its checkered history of political rallies, is a makeshift art gallery constructed of corrugated iron sheets painted blue and marigold. The gallery stands out from a distance. Its presence is audacious and somewhat of an oddity in a place where art is a luxury—a form of self-indulgence that only few can afford. To step inside is to be enveloped by a colorful collection of paintings on canvas, cardboard, baskets, bottles and pots lining every wall and shelf. Although spartan and unostentatious, Art360 gallery acts as an oasis for young artists in Kibera looking to grow their skills and make a living through their art.
On arrival, we find Faith, the founder of the Art360 gallery, and four other artists in an animated brainstorm over a sketch for a mural. Any attempt to keep a six feet distance is immediately thwarted, due to the minuscule size of the gallery.
We first heard about Art360 Kibera in mid-March shortly after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Kenya. Faith tells us, at that time, coronavirus was still a distant phenomenon that would seldom feature in the lexicon of the residents in Kibera. But now there is a lot of talk and misinformation about the virus. “We decided to create murals in highly frequented streets in Kibera so as to reinforce the message that Covid 19 is here and people need to take necessary precautions to keep the virus from spreading,” she says.
The thirty-one-year-old has lived in Kibera almost all her life. From an early age, she had an eye for the arts, especially abstract painting as it allows her to express herself more fully. But pursuing a career as a visual artist seemed out of reach. She had never met or heard of any female painters from Kibera until a fortuitous encounter with a group of young and talented local painters inspired her to create a space where artists could develop their skills and earn a living. “Starting an art gallery in Kibera with little resources is a bold move,” Faith admits. Their environment is their canvas. “We make art with anything we come across or find interesting. We don’t have to paint on canvas,” she says, gesturing toward a shelf with paintings on cardboard, flowerpots, used bottles, shoes and paper bags.
Before the pandemic, people from other neighborhoods would navigate the winding, congested paths that lead away from the matatu (public transport minibuses) termini and find their way through the shanty town to the tucked-away gallery to buy artwork. But with Kibera now classified as a Covid 19 hotspot and the government taskforce issuing pedantic warnings about the devastation a full-blown outbreak would portend, people from outside Kibera hardly visit the gallery. The pandemic has hit the meager fortunes of the artists at Art360 hard and wrought unimaginable economic uncertainties. “Most people are worried about where their next meal will come from. Getting a cute painting is the last thing on their minds,” says Francis Omondi, one of the artists at Art360.
Despite calls to self-quarantine, the artists at Art360 have chosen to keep the doors to the gallery open. “We cannot sustain ourselves if we decide to quarantine. It’s not easy surviving on paint and brush, but we still have to paint,” Faith tells us. Since the pandemic, the artists at Art360 have shifted their focus from making art pieces for profit to painting murals. Several local non-profit organizations have commissioned them to create murals around Kibera to sensitize the community on the best practices of preventing the spread of Covid-19.
Self-quarantine or working from home is a luxury that few residents in Kibera can afford. The Kenya Bureau of Statistics estimates that 83.6 percent of Kenyans work in the informal sector where a majority earn a daily wage contingent upon their physical availability at work. The government opted not to enforce a total lockdown as it would have adversely affected people’s ability to survive and, instead, a dusk to dawn curfew was put in place. Since then, the police have heightened surveillance measures in Kibera and actively used intimidation and brute force against residents found outside at night. During the first week of the curfew, social media platforms were awash with videos of police violently assaulting and harassing residents in Kibera. While police brutality is a constant feature of public life, especially in slums such as Kibera, the undue powers bestowed on the police under the guise of enforcing the curfew has exacerbated the arbitrary use of excessive force with devastating results. A report by the Kenyan Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) indicates that police have killed at least 15 people and seriously injured scores of others while enforcing the curfew.
After several hours of brainstorming and sketching, Faith and her team pick up brushes, paint cans and sketches and head out to their worksite, an iron sheet structure directly opposite the gallery, visible to the numerous pedestrians who pass by everyday. We watch from a distance as they wipe off dust and prime the grubby iron sheet wall. Each artist takes turns sketching and painting as music blasts from a portable radio. As the mural comes to life, the quotidian bustle of Kibera is in full swing—throngs of people walking in different directions, vendors manning open-air stalls, women selling food and secondhand clothes by the roadside.
At around 4PM, the mural is finally complete. Faith and her team begin to gather their brushes and paint cans while one artist stubbornly lingers for a bit to add a small detail to the mural. A small crowd of curious onlookers gather around the artist on the side of the road, eyes agape at the vivid and colorful mural that depicts a female health worker tagging a frightening red creature with chains to prevent it from attacking the world; the caption at the top reads Corona is Real. “With this mural, we want to give coronavirus a personality because a lot of people in Kibera seem oblivious to the gravity of the virus as they deal with more pressing issues,” Faith says as she gazes at the mural.
First published July 28 2020 by Artseverwhere.ca