Joga: Portrait of the Artist as Slum Satirist

Sunday December 1 2002

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA on the evolution of a painter who wasn't taught to paint by anybody and two years ago, had no idea what an art gallery was, somebody 'interested only in the practice of art, who displays his work exactly where it should be displayed'


I first met Joga two years ago. I was bored. Bored with the endless political discussions, with going to the same old places, bored with the same 20 R& B songs the new FM radio stations rammed down my ears.

I decided to move to a different part of the city for a while, mostly to be anonymous. So I went to Eastleigh. I spent a lot of time walking around the area, mingling with people, drinking in pubs. I checked into a cheap hostel called the Beverly Hills Hostel. At the time, I had no idea that the entry point to Mathare Valley, Kenya’s second largest informal settlement, was directly behind the hostel. This gateway to another world is called Mlango Kubwa.

I was walking around with the local photographer, taking pictures of barbershop art, when we made our way behind the fort of buildings that marked the end of the city as I knew it. It was getting dark when we got there.

It was as if we were in a city of paraffin lamps. There were literally thousands of people milling about the narrow paths that zigzagged between shacks. In front of every shack, something was being sold. Meat was grilling, chapatis were doing triple somersaults off flat pans and mandazis break-danced in hot oil. Everywhere, there were piles and piles of neatly arranged tomatoes, red onions, mangoes and sukuma wiki. Red, yellow and green bananas hung from ceilings; roast maize stuck onto metre-long skewers was thrust in our faces.

In the background, there was music, blaring from bad speakers: reggae, rhumba. There were open-air church services, using mobile PA systems; preachers shouting at the top of their voices; there were corrugated iron butcher shops and cardboard bars; and every sort of second-hand clothing imaginable for sale.

There was not a blade of grass anywhere, no trees, no bushes.

It was only once I adjusted to the frenzy around me that I noticed the art. Lush, clean and full of colour, showing prosperous faces and scenes, it was like nothing around us. It occurred to me that nobody here would be interested in buying realism for his or her walls. Grit is free in Mathare Valley.

Most of the paintings seemed to have been done by the same person: Joga. We asked around about him, and somebody went off to fetch him. After 15 minutes, a diminutive young man with uncomfortably naked eyes joined us. There didn’t seem to be a part of him that was not spattered with paint. Joga was 19 then, with only a primary school education, and had never been to an art gallery. When we talked, over tea and a mandazi, it turned out that he had no idea what an art gallery was, that he hadn’t been taught to paint by anybody, that he couldn’t speak English, and managed with rudimentary Kiswahili. Mostly he spoke Kikuyu.

He took us on a tour of his work. When I was eight, we drove through Laikipia during a storm. My face was pressed to the window and lazy brandy warmth spread from the pit of my stomach. I had been through this dusty harsh plain many times, but the thunder and lightning had caught the area unawares and in the panic of fauna and flora I saw a big picture. For the briefest moment, I felt part of something that could not be broken into the sum of its parts. To this day, the smell of rain on dust brings back this feeling of completion.

This is what I felt that night, meeting somebody who is interested only in the practice of art; who displays his work exactly where it should be displayed.

At the time, Joga's best work was cartoon portraits of women. He managed to render, with precise humour, what they want to look like when they leave a salon, without restricting himself to the usual clich s this style of art falls into. He painted plump women; doe-eyed women; tough, strong-jawed women; all pruned and primed, their hair done just the way that suited them best.

Expressions ranged from orgasmic joy to prim satisfaction. Mama Njeri, a hair-salon owner, told me that Joga's signs brought in a clientele who previously went to the city to get their hair done.

Joga led us into a bar, one of those sad bars where older people who dream of nothing but going back to the countryside go to drink. There was a huge mural on the wall. Rural humour: cows with over-large udders, lush countrywomen. There was a scene where a group of drunk men are trying to milk a cow; the furious owner of the cow looks impotently on. A matatu [commuter vehicle] is stranded on the road, which is blocked by somebody drinking alcohol from a gourd. They were all depicted with a sentimental ridicule, surrounded by scenes people must dream of here where there is no greenery: lush Kikuyu grass, trees, and a Friesian cow. Escape here, says the commercial, sample a little bit of home. Wambua and I laughed at the drunks in the painting. Legless.

Later, as we talked, Joga surprised me by saying that his works were like photos. There seemed to me to be far more than accurate representation going on.

He refused to accept that there could possibly be an objective picture of somebody. Surely people are exactly how he chose to see them?

So, in his mind, there was no difference between his cartoon images – which distinctly reflected his perspective of the character of the people he was portraying – and photographs taken by an anonymous photographer who aims only to present with accuracy what pose the client presents.

On our way back to the hostel, I noticed something else about his work. How he seemed able to draw attention to what people see in other people, even laughing at the silliness of the stereotypes he was portraying. His clients never seemed to notice.

There was one painting, on the wall of a telephone bureau: a frowning, self-important guy making a call. The guy was clearly telling somebody off – a scene straight out of one of our national broadcasters’ cheap dramas: the boss guy. Shallow, bossy, powerful, barking at minions. The sort of guy who is so self-involved he thinks this is an image of the successful Kenyan, the forward-looking Kenyan: the leader, the politician we know: the chief, the DC - mheshimiwa.

I talked to the owner of the bureau about the painting. He loved it, said he expected "high-class" clients to patronise his business. It occurs to me as I write this, that it could be that Joga’s sense of irony was my invention, that this "boss" character was his literal idea of somebody important. But a few minutes later, walking past a pretentious-looking hair-salon called "Jesse’s Posse," I saw the same thing again: a woman with over-bright lipstick on a hard ambitious face, a greedy, self-satisfied smile.

I asked Joga if he liked living and working in Mathare. He said he didn’t plan on leaving. I looked about and imagined him always there, never lacking a wall on which to hang his vision. I was envious.

Joga has changed. The awkward 19-year-old I met two years ago is gone. He is no longer wearing paint-splattered jeans; he has a trendy fleece jacket on, baggy pants and Nikes. He has acquired that loose way of walking that we refer to as cool. He will stop and lean against a wall, slouching slightly; he will not stare, like he used to, or look at anybody with eyes that declare his shyness; he will let his glance sit lightly on whoever addresses him. The glance will acknowledge their contribution, and the shutters will close. He speaks sheng now more often than he does Kikuyu.

It took me a while to find him. I promise to come and visit on Sunday, with friends, and with a photographer.

We arrive on Sunday afternoon. Twelve of us. Eastleigh is cold and wet. There is mud everywhere. We meet Joga at Beverly Hills Hostel and we follow him. Most of his new work is in Eastleigh now. He is a celebrity here, not because I wrote about him, but because his work is better appreciated in this part of town. He is not painting Kenyans anymore: he does Americans: Fubu clad people, with jewellery, and mouths poised to open and say "Yo, homeboy!"

America it is, but not Middle America: Black America: Tupac, WWF, hip hop, chunky gold jewellery. In one series of murals, Osama Bin Laden is painted near the wrestler called The Rock. As our middle-class eyes swing to this picture in some shock, one guy, teeth stained green from chewing miraa, raises his fist and says, "Osama!"

I am somewhat disappointed with Joga’s new style. He is clearly more confident about his technique and his ability to render his client’s wishes more accurately. It seems that these wishes are no longer vague explanations that leave him space to insert his own vision. Instructions seem to come from images lifted from American hip hop magazines. Look like America. Angry America.

Is this what globalisation is? That even our own image ceases to inspire us?

Juja Road, the main road to this part of town from the city centre, is closed for repairs. Vehicles are digging up what used to be a murram road.

Joga takes us to barbershop after barbershop, salon after salon. He doesn’t say much. We wade through the porridge of mud, trying to tunnel our concentration inward, there is so much noise.

It is getting late, and the rain is pouring down again. We walk back to the Beverly Hills Hostel. On our way there, we pass a Mungiki rally. We are all stunned into silence. The Mungiki members are clearly pushing Uhuru Kenyatta as their candidate. They have Uhuru T-shirts on; there are Uhuru campaign posters everywhere.

I ask Joga what he thinks about Mungiki. He shrugs, "There is no crime here these days. Even Beverly Hills Hostel was forced to fire their watchmen."

The rain starts to pour again, and a few rush to the safety of the bar. The rest of us press on. I am eager to see Joga’s older works in Mlango Kubwa.

We find the small muddy path to Mlango, and join the train of people heading there. A lot of Joga’s older works have now faded; the new look dominates. Here, the contrast between sleek Americanised faces, and mud and plastic bag shacks, and dirt is starker. It is easier to understand why business owners want him to paint this. Here you sell dreams: cut your hair like this, look like you don’t belong to this place.

In a few days, I will interview Kalamashaka. One of them will tell me, "We love our country, but our country does not love us."

So, this is the way to escape the two-faced Mtukufuism of the Moi era. Escape to America, in the mind, if the visa does not present itself; or escape to a past you never knew, a past you can romanticise, where people took snuff; where government was not a still portrait of a president presented as King, Mtukufu. A man you do not know, or like, forced on your wall. Anything is better than here and now: where law benefits policemen and politicians, where law is used as whip, to ensure that ordinary Kenyans keep stepping back to avoid the lash. So, the Kenyan created by this fear, is celebrated in political speeches: friendly, god-fearing, timid, peace loving. As if we had a choice in defining ourselves thus.

There it is: a flash of understanding. This is why all these Eastleigh paintings are of faces not Kenyan. Self-loathing. Maybe this is why hairdressers and barbers do not want Kenyan faces on their walls. People want to leave the salon/ barbershop feeling they have escaped themselves. Maybe they do not see a good place to escape to that is Kenyan.

We have been adopted by a young lady. Fatima. She can’t be older than 12. A delicate Somali face already shaped into a womanhood she is clearly not interested in acknowledging. She is our guide, skipping through the mud, and revealing information about where we are. She has an astonishing charisma - and we all march dutifully behind her.

"Don’t turn there, there are prostitutes there. Hey! Mungiki killed someone here, with pangas!"

She imitates Somali refugees chatting on cell phones, and keeps us in stitches. Her take on Mungiki is different from what we have heard here. She sees them as a gang, a Kikuyu gang who are in a turf war with Kamjesh: gangs who kill for turf, who want to re-introduce female genital mutilation to women. She is terrified of them.

Mlango Kubwa is very different from two years ago. Mungiki has torn down many shacks, and built roads where there used to be only tiny weaving paths. For security, they say. This way, thieves have nowhere to hide, cars can come into Mathare.

The sun sets, and we head back to the other side of town where signs are designed by computers, where art is in high-ceilinged minimalist spaces, where a vigilante group is not a good thing, where for some, the president’s portrait on the wall is a blessing, where those who have little to complain about of substance, can afford to say, "forgive and forget."