Meet these Kisumu youths painting their way into the hearts of art lovers


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Leonardo da Vinci, the renowned Italian painter and artist in his celebrated immaculate wisdom in the arts said, “nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first understood.”

The ‘Mona Lisa’ painting, one of his thought-provoking avant-garde masterpieces that have been the center of attraction in the art-space world over, and one that has evoked controversies and elicited both positive and negative reactions and opinions in an almost equal measure for centuries, is a classical example of this quote.

To comprehend this world of arts therefore would be the first step towards appreciating and giving it the value it so much deserves.

In Kisumu, a group of young men are living their dreams through art amid rapid growth of the sector locally, despite prejudice lumped on the trade.

Joseph Okello, a 29 year old artist based at Kisumu’s Mama Grace Onyango Social Center says they are not as respected as the ones based in the capital, Nairobi.

“Most of our pieces are not as appreciated as the ones created by our counterparts in Nairobi,” he says when Lake Region Bulletin visited the gallary.

The painter who is part of a team of six organized under the name ‘Mama Grace Onyango Visual Artists’, says the discrimination is costing them both socially and financially as some people feel they would rather buy paintings in Nairobi and not anywhere else in the country.

“The few who purchase paintings have a misguided notion that the pieces over there have more value or should have more value,” he says.

His lamentations were also echoed by his colleague, 24 year old Steven Oria who acknowledged that indeed selling a piece in the capital would be much easier.

Okello whose love for arts started blooming at an early age, and who went on to take Fine Arts during his secondary level at Kisumu Day Secondary, stressed the need for more artists in the lake region to rise up.

Patrick Odinga, an artist in Kisumu working on a piece during the second art exhibition in February at Mama Grace Onyango Social Center in Kisumu County. (photo: Joseph Obonyo, LRB)

The types of art

From pure portrait painting to hyperrealism, the art world has faced quite a dramatic and controversial evolution that has culminated to its present state where an accidental or intentional splash of paint on a canvas could and is considered a work of art.

Today, the there are over 15 categories of art genres classified according to appearance, style, subject matter and even those inspired by the times.

The most common genres in Kisumu are photorealism, portrait, abstract and hyperrealism.

While photorealism is an artist’s attempt to reproduce an exact replica of a photograph through drawing or painting as realistically as possible, hyperrealism on the other hand which is largely an advancement of photorealism, is a work of art that resembles a high-resolution photograph.

Portrait painting which is the most common and one that has been around for the longest time involves bringing out the features of a human subject and mostly with sheer focus on the facial characteristics.

(Left) An abstract Painting: courtesy. Austin Omondi poses with one of his pieces produced through photorealism. (Photo: Joseph Obonyo, LRB)

With abstract painting, the artist creates a composition by utilizing the visual language of form, shape, line and color.

It usually poses a degree of independence from visual reference in the real world.

Austin Omondi, a 40 year old artist who is also based at the same resource center as Okello and Oria said his choice of genre is photorealism.

“I love photorealism because it is an artist’s opportunity to skillfully recreate an actual photograph,” he explained, adding that in most cases people end up falling more in love with the art piece than with the actual photo.

Though art, critics have over the years accused hyperrealism and photorealism artists of expressing a lack of talent by choosing to duplicate photographs.

These two genres still enjoy a great deal of support and following with some artists claiming that not anyone with a brush and paint can do the same.

The self-taught artist who has been in the art space for close to four years and who stressed his love for the field, said anyone can learn art but it does not mean that producing art pieces are easy.

In a humble but with a steadfast voice he said: “Artists should be respected for whatever work they do and no matter how they do it or where they come from. There are pieces that take days or even longer to complete.”

Okello and Oria, both of who have a passion for portraits and abstract paintings and who aspire to grow their influence to the international level pointed out that online counterfeiters are an artist’s worst nightmare.

Online forgers

While the online space offers creators of artworks a platform on which to share their talents and grow, it is also a den that is brooding with thieves and forgers who make copies of artist’s original pieces.

Omondi who confirmed that they have not been victims themselves stated that it’s a real threat.

“There are people online who wait for the slightest opportunity to pounce on the hard work and sweat of artists by painting exact replicas and selling,” Omondi said.

With the internet as a medium proving to be not so useful for this particular field, majority of creators rely on and find art exhibitions and galleries to be a great way of not only showcasing and displaying their creativity but also making sales.

The exhibitions

 In late 2021, the first ever art exhibition in Kisumu was held at the iconic ‘Mama Grace Onyango Social Center.’

Though locals did not wholly embrace the event, it received favoritism from unexpected high profile individuals.

France Ambassador to Kenya Mrs Aline Kuster, not only graced the event but also made purchases.

This year’s four-day exhibition in February that saw upto ten artists turn up to showcase their works recorded a slight increase in the number of attendance as Okello revealed.

“We had a considerably larger number of people attending this year’s exhibitions compared to last year, though we still hope that it continues to grow,” he said.

It was also attended by a good number of County Government officials who also bought a number of pieces.

(Left) Steven Oria finishes one of his pieces during the exhibition. Kisumu Town Chief Willis Onyona with Mr Obat Masira, Mama Grace Onyango Social Center Manager during the exhibition.(Photo: Joseph Obonyo, LRB)

When Lake Region bulletin graced the last day of the event, Willis Onyona, Senior Chief for Kisumu Town Location was in attendance and marveled at the weight of talent that was expressed by the artists.

“This is out rightly amazing and exceptional,” he said as he toured the exhibition room with his eyes hopping from piece to piece.

The arrangement of the authentic pieces all around the room and at the center created such an esthetic allure that seemed to enslave viewers in a dreamlike state.

The wide range of paintings

The paintings ranged from portraits of known politicians and landscapes all the way to grotesque representations that mostly kept people gazing with wonder and astonishment.

Contemporary African art paintings were also secured a place in the exhibition.

Okello who humbly admitted to taking a number of young artists under his wing, stated that the exhibition was a free event and that any artist was allowed to showcase their artworks in the events.

He however added that 30 per cent from any sale made during the exhibition goes to the resource center.

They are looking forward to making the exhibitions a monthly and not just an annual affair.

The manager of the premises, Mr Obat Masira, who is both a writer and a poet, applauded the work done by the artists and mentioned that the institution looks forward to supporting more talents in the region as it has always done.

“This institution, renamed after a woman who herself inspired and supported young and growing talent, will continue to offer support to such enthusiastic talents,” he said, confirming that currently there is a group of six artist utilizing a resource center based within the premises.

Patrick Odinga, a 34 year old painter who is also a member of Mama Grace Onyango Visual Artists, and who was in the process of working a piece when we visited, said more needs to be done not only to support artists but also to protect their work.

The election violence theme

Like last year’s exhibition, this year’s theme was open, with artists free to display pieces speaking any message of their choice.

However, with the general election drawing nearer, some of the artists displayed pieces depicting election violence in the country.

Joseph Okello poses with one of his pieces depicting the violent atmosphere encompassing the election periods in Kenya with women and children as the first and more vulnerable victims. (Photo: Joseph Obonyo, LRB)

Oria and Okello who indulged this theme said it was a way of creating awareness about the heated atmosphere encompassing election periods in Kenya with an attempt to trigger and forge a lasting path towards peace.

“The need for peace is what such pieces drive towards,” Okello explained, stressing that the most affected persons when the violence erupts, are usually women and children as depicted in one of his masterpieces.

The true value of art

The paintings are sold from as low as Sh5, 000 to Sh50, 000.

Three of Okello’s pieces were among six purchased in the second exhibition.

A good number of their paintings are also bought by art collectors.

A number of locals visiting the gallery or the exhibitions however cannot put together the reason why a painting would cost so much, choosing to judge the artist’s work mostly by size and their own taste and forgetting the creativity and time that an artist invests in any given piece.

“Most people do not realize the time, creativity, and even emotional attachment that it takes to birth a masterpiece,” Omondi enunciated.

A section of the art gallery at Mama Grace Onyango Social Center Kisumu County during the second art exhibition. (Photo: Joseph Obonyo, LRB)

“Tied to a painting usually, are the emotions and the essence of both the artist and the subject of the art captured incongruously or harmoniously on a canvas with paint and a gifted hand,” said Omondi who added that he always resist the temptation to hang his ‘made for sale’ masterpieces on his wall at home for fear of growing too attached.

 “With every stroke of the brush, part of an artist’s very essence is immortalized onto a canvas,” added Oria who managed to sell a piece during this year’s exhibition.

This in itself, the artists believe, is enough to baptize a masterpiece and cloak it with an aura of timelessness and a kind of unseen spiritual radiance that make it priceless.

Across the board, the artists seemed to share a common sentiment that when individuals gaze at a painting, they should look beyond the canvas, beyond the plethora of colors if there be and into the very ‘soul’ of a painting.

If a picture speaks a thousand words, imagine a painting.


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