What you need to know:
- I was so close to death and I remember there were nights I was afraid that if I closed my eyes I would slip away
- I remember begging God...I just needed to find my purpose, and if He gave me a second chance, I would leave everything behind and focus on that purpose
Yvonne Sirali Wambui, 27, is a painter who moved from Mombasa to Nairobi at the height of the pandemic, to pursue her dream of making a living as a full-time painter. She currently hosts "Paint and Coffee" events
"The first event of Coffee and Paint that I did was with the Instamarket in March this year, and I enjoyed it. Tomoca Cafe got to see what I was doing, they liked it and later invited us to host the event at their cafe. We started monthly but it has taken off well and we want it to happen every weekend," says Sirali.
Walking into the cafe in Westlands, some of her pieces are exhibited throughout the space and in between milkshakes and paninis, one can buy whatever piece tickles their fancy. She mostly shares her work online or on her Instagram page
@artbysiralie, but before the Covid pandemic, she exhibited frequently at various spots such as the National Museum, Nairobi Gallery, and pop-up events like at the Village Market.
"I started the Paint and Coffee venture in the middle of the pandemic after moving to Nairobi from Mombasa where I grew up," she says.
"Being the capital city, I thought there would be more opportunities here for the art. I call art my home. If I was doing something else, I wouldn't have been at peace. Even though it is a struggle, I am doing something that excites me every day," she says.
Sirali specialty is in abstract art, in which she uses canvas, paints, brushes, palette knives, and anything near her. "Painting is my full-time job," she says.
She got interested in painting when she was just nine. She explains, "I would watch the boys in class drawing cartoons and would ask them to teach me. I'd even zone out during some lessons and would be drawing in the back of my book. I hoped that when I got to high school I'd get to study arts and crafts but the subject was not on offer."
Undeterred, she kept sketching and doing calligraphy and says that she "was in problems a lot in high school and was always being punished for taking to her passion even when she should have been studying."
She made a resolve then to be a full-time artist in the future. "It has taken several years to get here, but I'm grateful I finally did," she says.
Her path to making a living as an artist however wasn't direct. Raised by a single mother, she was advised to pursue Business Management with a major in Sales and Marketing, which seemed like a more viable career choice. She gave up art for a while and got into the corporate world for two years working in the sales department of several hotels. "I did a lot of job-hopping and worked in five hotels in two years. I never stayed anywhere long enough as I would get bored of the routine," she says.
Just like in high school, she found herself in trouble often at her various hotel jobs because 'I'd question things.'
"Sometimes I'd realise I was about to be fired and would just disappear," Sirali shares.
The job experiences eventually took a toll on her mental health.
"It got to a point where it was too much, and in 2018 I was close to taking my own life because that environment was not for me. It was getting to me, so I quit for a whole year," she says.
It was during the out-of-work period, in January 2019, that she was taken ill and hospitalised that she reflected on her life and made a turning point.
"I was so close to death and I remember there were nights I was afraid that if I closed my eyes I would slip away. I remember begging God...I just needed to find my purpose, and if He gave me a second chance, I would leave everything behind and focus on that purpose. If it was art, I would make it work," she says.
Still, the transition wasn't instant because after getting better, she worked at yet another hotel for three months. In July 2019, she amassed the courage and started painting full-time.
"Social media became my gallery, and I've been able to export some pieces outside the country thanks to Facebook and Instagram," she prides.
She admits that Kenyans are not big buyers of art, but with time the appreciation is growing.
"When I talk to older artists, there's a shared sentiment that the art scene is definitely growing," explains Sirali.
The cost of her paintings depends on the size, materials used, and expertise.
"My smallest piece, which at 17 x 23 inches is the size of a normal calendar, starts at Sh15,000," she says. This year she has been doing a lot of commissioned work back to back.
"I recently did a portrait of a Kenyan family that's based in the diaspora- I even added a Kenyan flag," she says.
Though her painting style is abstract, she likes to explore. Her pieces are very colourful, and she always tries to paint what she's feeling, which is very therapeutic. "I'm currently working on a series called "A queen finding herself". It has 10 pieces- I'm currently on number 7- started last year during the pandemic," she says.
"There's one in which the subject is screaming, and it's called 'kicheko kilio' which depicts the emotional ups and downs I went through. Everything was closed during the lockdown and I was stuck at home with my art and I was feeling very down, but then I would feel better shortly after and paint another piece. I know it's not just me feeling these things, so people can relate to them," says the artist.
An advocate for mental health, Sirali's goal for the Coffee and Paint events is to create a safe and fun space for people to tap into their artistic selves, try something new and meet new people.
Prices for the Coffee and Paint event are between Sh1,500 and Sh2,500 depending on the venue.
"Everyone always has such a fun time, and they get to go home with whatever they paint. For artists, she's hoping to inspire them to explore more avenues of making money."
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