Art as a way of moving up in the world

Some members of the Mukuru Art Collective, July 21, 2021. 

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru

What you need to know:

  • It was to Sister Mary that Mutugi turned once he got out of prison.
  • Admitting he had been a relatively successful pickpocket for a time, his day of reckoning came after stealing cash and a new Nokia cell phone from a father who had been carrying his sick child to the hospital, thus becoming what looked like easy prey to Mutugi.

James Mutugi, 39, just got out of jail in 2020 after 13 years of being shuffled between Kamiti Maximum Security Prison to other jails around the land. He’s a self-confessed former pickpocket and ex-con who only fell into crime when the going got rough, and his poverty led to his believing he had no other choice but crime.

James had always loved to draw and even found his way to the Shang Tao Media College for a while, where he did animation and drawing before his funds ran dry. Coming from the Mukuru wa Njenga informal settlement (aka ‘slum’), his early affinity for art had been fueled by Sister Mary, an Irish nun who had inspired many a Mukuru artist, including Shabu Mwangi, Ngugi Waweru, and Joseph Weche, among many others.

Turned to Sister Mary

It was to Sister Mary that Mutugi turned once he got out of prison. Admitting he had been a relatively successful pickpocket for a time, his day of reckoning came after stealing cash and a new Nokia cell phone from a father who had been carrying his sick child to the hospital, thus becoming what looked like easy prey to Mutugi.

Mutugi confessed everything to Sister Mary, who advised him to go see Adam Masava at his studio in South C. There, Masava was coaching aspiring artists who were happy to join his Mukuru Arts Collective just for a chance to see if art could be an answer to their needs not just to pay their bills but also for the joy of artistic self-expression.

Mutugi has only been with Masava for a year, but his years in jail have given him many materials to interpret with his art. “I had so many experiences in prison that I want to paint,” he tells Life&Style as he shows me one such painting.

“It’s of a prisoner being tortured by a prison guard,” he says of his figurative piece that doesn’t need much explanation to see how a guard is mistreating a prisoner in the middle of a prison yard.

In 2008, Adam Masava opened up his art studio to virtually every young slum dweller and school leaver. They wanted to study and practice art but usually had no formal training before meeting the founder of Mukuru Arts Collective.

“I had started teaching young children in Mukuru after coming back from my successful art exhibition in the Czech Republic,” Masava recalls. “I come from Mukuru myself, so I wanted to give back to my community and give young people exposure to art, especially as it is no longer in the school’s syllabus,” he adds.

Promising youth

Starting the Mukuru Art Club as an extracurricular activity at the Mariakani Primary School, Masava successfully shared his skills and got kids excited about their potential for doing art. “Eventually, the club got too big, and the school’s administration changed, so I had to move out,” says Masava with just a touch of sadness in his throat. “I decided I could invite a few of the most promising youth from the Club to come and continue painting and drawing at my studio in South C,” he adds.

Operating somewhat similarly to another generous genius artist on the other side of town, Patrick Mukabi at the Dust Depo, Masava has inspired many an up-and-coming artist like Mutugi. He’s done so without discriminating and shutting out anyone who comes. “Fortunately, I have an open court just outside my studio and an open-air upper level where we have already held several group exhibitions,” Masava says.

The day I visited the Collective, I met Ann Mumbi, 18, who has been coming to Masava’s studio off and on for the past two years. “I’m coming more consistently now,” she says, recalling that she first met Masava when she was six years old and a student at Mariakani Primary.

Art exposed her

“There is little doubt that the art he exposed me to when I was young helped to shape my appreciation of art today,” she says. She modestly shows me a colourful portrait of a girl surrounded by beautiful butterflies. “I’ve just started,” she adds, but clearly, she has a future doing art.

When I first visited Masava’s studio a couple of years ago, only young men were working away with enthusiastic energy. But this time, I met Ann and Amina Martha, an amateur boxer who met Benson Gicheru, a two-time Olympiad boxer who recommended she see Masava if she had a serious interest in art. Now she splits her time between the gym and Masava’s studio, where she’s quickly becoming as passionate about art as she is toward boxing and teaching young girls the art of self-defence as they learn how to box.


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