Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life, advised Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher. Victor Omondi must have mopped up that kibitz with his ears because for the last six years, he has never had to work a day in his life. Artist, graphic designer and Nairobi documenter, Omondi is also somewhat of a Renaissance man.
But in this age of gender polarisation and short attention spans, it is perhaps no surprise that most of his clients have only accessed him through the small screen. In fact, if social media had never been invented, most of us probably wouldn’t know who he was. I first came into contact with his work through the friend of a friend on Twitter, where he had uploaded a 60-something second time-lapse of him painting Nairobi’s cityscape. It was love at first sight.
“I have always loved art, drawing and sketching. I was the naughty student sketching in the textbooks, but I realised I was becoming a better artist with time. I was lucky to have competition from my classmates and we would rival each other. Little did we know we were sharpening one another’s pencils – so to speak. In high school, I joined the Art and Design class, winning all interschool competitions. I didn’t need a seer to tell me this was what I was born to do. I later joined the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Arts, where I refined my craft before joining a media company as a graphic designer. But in 2017 I left my job. Now I am a full-time artist and though I may have a few regrets, this is not one of them.”
With deep - set eyes and dreadlocks, perhaps the quintessential uniform of every other artist, Omondi speaks like he is painting. But he isn’t any other artist. His paintings are befitting of any of the cathedrals of Kenyan art, and he is especially drawn to Nairobi and its bustling streets and macabre avenues. Why Nairobi? “I was born and raised here. When people talk about Nai they highlight only the negative side. But I want to show the other side that is less talked about. That is why I paint streetscapes of Nairobi.”
‘People’ in this case would be me and hundreds of others who are disillusioned by this city. It is overcrowded, noisy and smells like a graveyard of dreams. Nairobi often plagiarises Lagos, whereas Demi Ajayi writes in Finding Lagos: A Jazz Tribute to an African City: “Dreams may take their time to fruition, and so the citizens of Lagos are best described thus: those who have made it and those who are in the process of making it.”
Depending on whom you ask and when, Omondi has either made it as an artist or is in the process of making it. He recently made around KSh385,000 for a commissioned wall painting. “But it was a two-month job,” he is quick to demur. What determines the pricing of his art is mostly the size and the complexity. Things like sunsets can be done in a short period but cityscapes take much longer as you have to capture every inch of the city. “The details take longer and translate to higher costs.”
He is one of few local artists who tread the gossamer fine line between pleasure and pain, pay cheque and passion. He can work on up to four projects a month, without overpromising nor putting himself under undue pressure. “It takes me an average of one week to finish large paintings, but smaller ones take a day or two.”
With philosophical zest and slow brush strokes, the room quickly fades around him, cue for him to fade too, leaving behind a boyshaped vapour. Likewise, his mind is fleet and dexterous and artful in private conversation. I ask whether he has ever been paid with exposure, itself a fraternity to which he would rather die than pledge himself. “It is difficult for everyone. I worked as a graphic designer so I was already familiar with how to price and value my work. Experience taught me to see the red flags when clients would not pay. But I also insist on taking a 60 per cent down payment upfront. That is how I have managed to earn a living from art without going mad.”
Of course, he says, he has been paid with exposure too. This is where he was bloodied and which eventually became the rock on which he built his church. “It’s not prudent to pay anyone with exposure but I am glad I went through that because in some cases it ‘exposed’ me to different markets.” The first time anyone ever paid him for his work he earned him a paltry KSh500, then KSh1,000, then KSh1,500. “That was for tee-shirts, which I used to create and design. That’s when I knew that maybe I was onto something.” The rest, to borrow the trite phrase, is history.
Presently, he has taken it upon himself to spread the artistic gospel. To whom much is given, much is expected. He is not worn down by his burdens. My people say a bull is not worn down by its hump.
“People have a fear of learning and perfecting their skills. I want to show them it is not hard to start. Anyone can become a good artist. I want to be the high priest who teaches people how to be that good artist.”
It will not rock the earth from its axis to learn that Omondi draws inspiration from social media artists whom he considers his mentors. I prod him to name a few but he doesn’t want to upset the apple cart by naming favourites.
Probably playing to the gallery, but creatives, coincidently, are known to love their darlings. Victor is no exception. He tells me of an art piece he created for a studio where he used to work as an artist. “The initial plan was for it to be hung there, but someone saw it and bought it. The next day, I was a little bit meh. I really loved that piece and I wanted it to be on the wall.”
There is an easy feel to his paintings, an ‘anyone can do this’ quality to his art, but you wouldn’t be more mistaken if you called the Monalisa the Monica. Which is why, despite his art not coming cheap, it’s certainly worth every shilling. This is apt because his biggest struggle at the moment as an artist is that money from art is seasonal. You are not guaranteed a regular income at the end of the month.
The middle ground, he says, is to have consistent ties of payment. “I make prints of my art and make them very affordable. When art is affordable a lot of people buy it. When people cannot afford the original artwork, I can make other versions for as little as KSh7,000.” Would he consider himself successful, then? “Success is being happy with everything, with what you do and having a good work-life balance, one of the few good things that art gives me. In other words, success is happiness.” And failure? “I look at failure as encountering a challenge and not picking anything positive from it.”
How he keeps the grass from growing under his feet is simple: “I attend many exhibitions to see what other artists are doing out there. I have a small network of artists who share their skills, which I gladly take. Visiting art galleries and seeing what other people are doing online has really helped me a lot.” That is, when he is not hiking, which is his way of blowing off steam.
Art finds her own perfection within and not outside of herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard or resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror. When he does lift the veil, what is he unlearning, learning, and relearning? “I am unlearning ‘being busy’ and focusing more on being productive. I am relearning some of the things I took for granted in school – like business education. I realise it is very important in life.”
Is there a question I should have asked that I have not? Yes, he says. “The impact of social media on my work. Social media has gotten me a lot of clients and engagement. My following has ballooned and I have got a bigger audience as opposed to if I was in traditional galleries, thanks to my following on Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube. And it has also helped in levelling the playground; it is no longer galleries who dictate who an artist is. Social media has made it a willing buyer, willing seller market.”
Romantic? Yes. But life doesn’t reward romance. Eventually, Romeo, thinking Juliet is dead after having taken a potion that would make her sleep for being forced to marry someone else, poisons himself. Juliet wakes up and sees Romeo dead. She then kills herself with Romeo’s dagger. Only in this case, Victor is no Romeo. His romance story with art ends in a wedding, rather than death.
This article was published in The Weekly Review, Issue 39 of May 28, 2023