Gakunju Kaigwa

Art is an unusual career path even today in Nairobi. How did you consider and become an artist?

I don’t recall any soul searching involved in my decision to pursue art, rather I remember already being set on the path, being in second year of fine art at KU (Kenyatta University) and realising this is what I wanted to do. Art never occured to me as a calling, there was no longing or hunger for it, it chose me in a way.

How did you land on Fine art and eventually sculpture?

I had three choices and I remember filling in Architecture as a second choice. It is said that architecture is the mother of all the arts. who knows? I find architecture to be something like functional sculpture. In university doing Fine Art, you had to pick between areas of art, one in 2d and another in 3d, ceramics never appealed to me much so I ended up choosing sculpture instead.

Why Sculpture?

Scultpure was something new and fun, unexperienced, though the professor was an insecure pain who liked glorifying himself. In fact I had given up on sculpture by 3rd year. A good teacher allows people to come out as painters themselves.

I worked for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, making sets for news and studio interviews and then left to pursue art. Painting was agonizing and very dramatic for me, paintings came from photographs and sketches whereas sculptures came out of my mind so sculpture became a natural choice for me.

Gakunju Kaigwa - Art 2

Did you have any mentors along the way?

My Art teacher from around 1971-76, her name is Ms. Kaderbhai, though at the time I didn’t know I was being mentored. We are still friends, we keep in touch. John Odoch Ameny also taught me welding, he used to work with African Heritage back then

As Luck would have it, at the time Kenyatta University were training Art teachers, not artists. I happen to teach now, so that training came in handy in the long run

Do you mentor any artists?

in my capacity as a teacher and also here (at Kuona Arts) I’ve been successful in inspiring guys

knowledge is to be shared, the wider spread the better. No one has a copyright on drawing maasais: I’ve seen artists come to blows crying “Why do your paintings look like mine?!!”

Gakunju Kaigwa - Art

As the youngest of the first generation of Kenyan artists, what is your view of the art scene in Kenya at the moment?

Art has always been very peripheral in media, it has been taken out of public schools and (the situation of) art being done only in some private schools is a major concern. Society needs artists, where will the next generations of surgeons, architects and engineers come from? Schools are not giving kids these necessary skills

Also very little has changed infrastructure-wise for practising artists, gallery spaces are few and there aren’t enough professionals to help artists. Ideally an artist’s job should be to seek inspiration and present it, not to look for buyers and bargain.

Not all is bad though, it’s become “cool” for Kenyans to buy Kenyan art and that is a kind of relief as I can finally say I know where my pieces have found a home, I can point at someone and tell you “That guy has three of my sculptures” and that is a great feeling. It’s been a slow process but it’s happening

What is Your take on people who can’t draw?

It’s a socio-cultural thing where people say ” I can’t do that ” (Draw) even though they have never tried it. We are almost programed in a way to think we are not good at some things. if you have a negative mindset you end up with a negative space

People end up taking more pride in knowing you’re right (about being unable to draw) than in overcoming your weakness.

Every single one of us can draw, it is like riding a bicycle, practice and interest sustains you. If anything, I would be a street preacher in a corner shouting to everyone that they can become sculptures, artists, anyone can do this!

A word to young artists; How can one be a successful artist?

It’s really about doing it because you love it. I make art because it keeps me sane, If (I was) told not to it (life) wouldn’t be worth it.

Do what you love, then sell the love of what you do. I’m often asked “what is your favourite piece?” I haven’t made it yet (laughs)

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