What you need to know:
- I just want to have our children read books without hidden agendas. I became a teacher by mere coincidence.
- We made an animated film about two years ago and after sharing it, we decided how we can put this skill in the hands of the audience, primarily children.
- And that’s how I started teaching. I’ve been running a school programme where we teach children animation and how they can use it together with science.
Kyansimire Oroni is an illustrator, writer, animator and teacher based in Nairobi. He has been intricately honing his skills using different mediums for the last few years. He is inspired by the big metropolitan cities of Africa and is especially excited to create for African children.
1. For how many years have you been illustrating? What got you interested in visual arts? How would you say social media has helped your craft – both for visibility and commercialism?
I have been drawing all my life. That is all I did growing up –watch TV and draw. I never asked for anything as a child, not for toys, not for birthday presents, not even chicken and chips. I always asked for art materials. I got interested in visual art through books and cartoons. The Ladybird books that were in our schools were so easy for me to get lost in and so beautiful to look at. It made learning easy for me. I knew I was really good when teachers in our school started asking me to draw school charts. It helped that our school system back then had art in the curriculum.
Social media has really been great for displaying my type of art, for this current generation of Kenyans who grew up reading and watching comic books, valuing those mediums as high art, and having them as an essential part of their lives. That is the work that pays me. It translates to young people in the workforce going to their older bosses and saying, “We know an illustrator from Instagram who can illustrate this campaign for us and we should hire him.” It’s great because I get to have a global audience.
2. A lot of your art online has to do with every day human emotions, covering both happiness and sadness. Many think that cartoons and illustrations are supposed to be just funny, when in reality, anything in comedy often covers much harder parts of the human experience. Why do you think a lot of your art is geared to, ‘survival art,’ or ‘sad art?’
The honest answer is because whatever I draw is derived from my real lived experience. I am a walking vase of emotions all scrunched up together trying to fight for space in this body. And I can’t afford to be unauthentic with this life and with everything I do. And it’s so easy for me to translate that to my work because it is honest.
When I genuinely illustrate that, so many people relate to it because we are all going through some life challenges. I like the terms ‘survival art” and ‘sad art.’ I think people look at my art like that because it’s like looking at a mirror when you are naked, and have nothing to hide. Some parts of you might seem sad because that’s the real you, and the real you is sad sometimes because we aren’t good people all the time. We don’t always say sorry, and we sometimes treat those we love terribly. It might be hard for you if someone points that out. Most people don’t want to face that side of themselves.
3. Your book is coming out! What does it look like, what’s the launch date, what is it about and where can we get it?
My book is called How to survive in Nairobi with your girlfriend. It is a graphic novel about surviving Nairobi with your female compatriots. It is fun, beautiful, and an ode to this beautiful city that I grew up in and absolutely love, and also an ode to the women in it who are all just cool. I can’t wait for the world to see it. I genuinely feel it is a work of art. It will be out on my website and hopefully a few bookshops as well. Launch date is in August.
4. Why do you think it is especially important to make content for children? How did you become a teacher, and did you always want to teach?
Because, as cliché as that sounds, children are the future. Growing up, all I did was draw stuff I saw on TV and read on books. And what was on TV and books were white characters – Johnny Bravo, Dexter, Hey Arnold, Harry Potter. All amazing characters, but they weren’t looking like me. I didn’t realise that until I got to high school and my teacher pointed out the features on my characters, and I realised that I had just been drawing white people. I’d love to throw and have tons of books about African children, because all the books and TV shows that our young ones have access to that have characters that look like them always have an agenda – they are usually about HIV/Aids, malaria or teen pregnancies.
That’s cool, but I just want to have our children read books without hidden agendas. I became a teacher by mere coincidence. We made an animated film about two years ago and after sharing it, we decided how we can put this skill in the hands of the audience, primarily children. And that’s how I started teaching. I’ve been running a school programme where we teach children animation and how they can use it together with science. My partners are Stephanie Okeyo, an amazing scientist, and Sheldon Mutei, my partner in this art thing.
5. What will you be working on after your book? Is it time for a holiday? To sleep for three months? Why did you write a book, and what was the best part of it for you? What is the part you can’t wait to do again?
Yes, I am planning to go somewhere and hang out with my people. My plan is to go to Australia, hopefully. But before that, right after this book, I have a children’s book coming out called My hair is ruff and tuff and it’s my crown. It is about a little boy in Kenya with a gorgeous head of dreadlocks. I wanted to do a book because I was tired of not seeing books for us, especially illustrated books, comics, graphic novels. These are incredible mediums that are at par with what people call regular books.
They are celebrated all over the world. The artists and writers who work on these books are incredible curators of culture and we need to do that here. The best part for me was researching and getting buzzed after nailing an idea and turning it into text, and then turning it into artwork and just looking at it. It is such a high. Drawing black and brown people is an incredible dopamine feeling! And I can’t wait to do that again and again and again.