What you need to know:
- As he was a minor, the gallery’s managers gave him cheques from the sale of his artwork to pay his school fees.
- They also did his shopping and provided him with pocket money. He has made over 100 pieces and sold nearly all of them.
- The revenue enabled him pay for his education to university level. He is now a fourth year student at Catholic University of East Africa undertaking a Bachelor’s degree in history and international relations.
Open sewers, littered streets and dilapidated shanties with rusted roofs. This is the unappealing image that comes to mind whenever most people hear anything about Nairobi’s Kibera slums. But for 25-year-old Wesley Osoro, beauty does not exist on its own. It is created by observers, and that is his mission – to show a different side of the place he calls home, through art.
As you approach Uweza Art Gallery located in Olympic Estate in Kibera, you do not need any explanation on the kind of business that runs here. The walls are splashed with colourful graffiti and the rooms are full of various types of art. We find Wesley on the first floor having a light moment with his colleagues.
“My love for art started in my childhood. I would draw cartoons I saw on TV like Ben 10, mostly for amusement. When the other children realised I was good at drawing, they started requesting help with sketching the diagrams in their school homework.”
Wesley took this as an opportunity to earn some cash to buy school stationery. He would charge Sh20 for each drawing. This is how he discovered and nurtured his talent and passion for art.
“My father bought me a drawing book, and I would scribble on it using just a pencil as supplies were limited,” he adds.
When he was in Class Seven, Wesley was introduced to Uweza foundation. Uweza was founded in 2008 and targeted children and youth in Kibera. Their aim is to improve the young ones’ lives by helping them discover and develop their talents and abilities.
“By the time I was joining Uweza in 2010, the art programme did not exist, so I joined as a footballer. When we were not playing, however, the facilitators would give us drawing materials to keep us occupied.”
Eventually, the organisers realised some children had a talent in art. They introduced art classes every Saturday, and Wesley was among the first 20 children to be enrolled.
“The foundation started advertising the pieces we painted on Facebook and the response was good. I sold my first piece for Sh18,000 when I was in Class Eight,” a proud Wesley notes.
The gallery paid him 60 per cent of the total amount and retained the rest to be used in buying more supplies which were being offered to the pupils free of charge.
“This gave me hope, as I had already given up on furthering my education past primary level because of financial difficulties.”
As he was a minor, the gallery’s managers gave him cheques from the sale of his artwork to pay his school fees. They also did his shopping and provided him with pocket money. He has made over 100 pieces and sold nearly all of them. The revenue enabled him pay for his education to university level. He is now a fourth year student at Catholic University of East Africa undertaking a Bachelor’s degree in history and international relations.
“I draw my inspiration from the things I saw growing up. A lot of people view Kibera with a lot of negativity, but I want to show them that there is beauty in everything, and that even children who grew up here like me have talent and potential.”
Wesley says that unlike some artists who paint Kibera with rugged and rusted structures, he prefers to take his imagination higher and add colour to his work, a concept he calls abstract realism.
For motivation, he looks up to his first tutor at the gallery, Joseph Wanderi.
“He is the one who taught me everything I know about art, and through his guidance my talent shone. I aspire to reach and exceed his standards.”
Wesley notes that his former tutor’s pieces cost hundreds of thousands of shillings, and he believes he can also reach that level someday. He proudly notes that none of his artwork retails for less than Sh10,000.
Like any other endeavour, Wesley notes that he has been faced with quite a number of challenges.
“Sometimes the motivation and inspiration is lacking. I can complete a piece in a day, but sometimes it takes months. Also, we have a problem with marketing, so it can take up to a year or more before any of your pieces are sold, and this has become a huge challenge especially for those artists who are not consistent in their work. Many of them have since taken up other activities.”
Wesley also notes that they face a threat from vendors who sell counterfeit pieces on the streets. When he posts his work on his social media platforms to advertise and get clients, some people copy the images and print them on canvass, then sell the fake pieces to unsuspecting Kenyans. This creates unfair competition.
However, Wesley takes pride in the work he and his colleagues have done so far. Art has transformed his life and helped him support his family as the firstborn in a family of four, and has also inspired his brother Kevin to register as a painter in the gallery.
“The greatest joy is seeing more children enrol into the programme and stay consistent. Currently, I teach a class of 15 children for two hours every Saturday. All the classes are free and materials are provided.”
Wesley hopes he can inspire them to realise their full potential. He believes there is so much potential and talent in art that remains undiscovered, and hopes to establish many other art galleries like Uweza.
“There is a quote by Albert Einstein I love, that is on a banner in our gallery – creativity is contagious, pass it on.”