Creative hub rich in glorious chaos

Saturday January 13 2018

Inside the Dust Depo at the Nairobi Railways Museum. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Inside the Dust Depo at the Nairobi Railways Museum. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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When Patrick Mukabi is not balancing on a ladder painting murals in far flung places — a college in Denmark was only the latest — he can be found teaching artists by the dozen in the school he set up himself, the aptly named Dust Depo.

The Depo (and yes, he spells it like that) is next to the Kenya Railway Museum in the heart of Nairobi and one thing it has in plenty is dust.

I have rarely seen such glorious disorder, other than in photographs of Francis Bacon’s studio, and it could easily serve as a film set for struggling artists battling to become tomorrow’s stars.

For it is against this comically cliché-ridden background that Mukabi advances the skills of young artists.

He created the Depo in 2014, moving to what had been an exhibition hall from his studio at the GoDown not so far away in the city’s Industrial Area, in search of more space for his growing number of pupils.

“I stumbled upon the hall one day, found the gallery there had closed so I took over the space.” he said, adding that the school was funded by the sales of his own paintings plus occasional contributions from supporters.

As one of the region’s best loved artists, renowned for his huge rolling nudes and fat-bottomed market mamas, Mukabi takes justifiable pride in having also helped to develop such rising stars as Florence Wangui of the charcoal chickens, Dickson Otieno, whose woven tin torsos and screens are causing a stir among collectors, and Alex Mbevo, whose early paintings bore an embarrassing resemblance to the master’s own blousy works.

Currently 12 artists work at the Depot, seven days a week.

In addition, each year Mukabi takes up to 18 student interns mainly from Kenyatta University but also from the Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts, Kenya Polytechnic and that college in Silkeborg, Denmark, where a vigorous exchange programme goes back to his GoDown days.

Artists based at the Depo include graffiti specialists who have a show at Nairobi National Museum, where their gigantic paintings line the walls, and the painters — Kennedy Otieno, Bebeto Ochieng’ and Msaleh, who call themselves the Bomb Squad — have spray cans, brushes and rollers at the ready and are creating a mural-size canvas as visitors look on.

Rowdy, gaudy, dizzying to see and offered without any concession to scale, they have an impact far beyond the museum walls. An outdoor exhibition would, I suspect, have served these bold young artists better.

In the Depo, paintings are hung on the walls and stacked six deep against them, or left to lean crazily against anything still standing, including tables, chairs, even an old TV monitor.

Shoes being painted as part of a project by one Eric Mureithi are heaped on the floor, and lie on, under and around tables which themselves are covered with drawings, old newspapers, clothes, bits of wire and all the other stuff deemed so essential to creating art.

Dangling from a wall are a few canvas bags, painted by graffiti artist Ibra, whose work can be seen at the Dusit2 Hotel off Riverside Drive. One bag bears a portrait of Professor Wangari Maathai, and the sales success of Michael Soi has clearly been taken to heart.

There is even a functioning tattoo parlour run by Solomon Luvai who, at 26, also produces lifelike charcoal portraits of the rich and famous, dead and alive; President Kennedy being one recent example.

Deeper into the hall can be found Ibrahim Ndung’u who, at 21, runs weekend art classes for children and their parents, as well as producing paintings included in mixed exhibitions at the Alliance Francaise and the National Museum. He has recently taken to painting on newspapers; an accessible, cheap and eco-friendly medium that adds a certain immediacy to his work.

Jammed under some piping by the door is an A2 sheet of charcoal figure studies, bodies writhing all over the paper, that suggests someone has been looking hard at Old Master drawings and benefitting from the experience. Let the record show that someone to be Hannington Gwanzu, from Kibera, and let me be one among many who think if he maintains his studies and goes on to develop his own style he will be an artist worth tracking.

The figures are based on his admiration for the trinity of the High Renaissance — Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael — and his skill with charcoal has been honed over by another fan of the three, Mukabi himself.

When Mukabi gives a lesson, he is a rigorous tutor. First comes the drawing of solid objects — cones, spheres and cylinders — then the principles of modelling with light and shade, then perspective. And finally after six weeks or so comes the human figure.

If you can draw from life, you can draw anything, they say. And with Mukabi, traditional teaching is both surviving and thriving.

As a bustling hub of creativity, his Dust Depo certainly lives up to its growing reputation. It lives up to its name as well… as one of the few places where you have to wipe your feet on the way out.