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Kenya's Kibera slum overflows with street art

It's a tough -- and liberating -- way to survive.

December 17, 2009|By Robyn Dixon
  • In Kibera, a vast slum outside Nairobi, Kenya, the streets are the gallery for the artists who live there. "The art world is a difficult world because you consume your time drawing or painting but you don't know who will come to buy. Or when," says Solomon Muyundo, 31. "Sometimes you're embarrassed to go and add to your debts. So sometimes we starve."
In Kibera, a vast slum outside Nairobi, Kenya, the streets are the gallery… (Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Nairobi, Kenya — In Kibera, Africa's biggest slum, you can scratch out a living by preaching, begging, frying dough, burning charcoal, selling pirated DVDs or making illicit moonshine.

But art? In a place so poor that children have to hustle in the streets?

Well, it's not easy.

Duck into a shabby alley, climb some rickety steps tiled with faded bottle tops and enter an artists' garret, Kenya style. Under a baking tin roof, paintings on canvas and plywood cover the walls, with others stacked carelessly on the floor. A magpie's treasure litters a table: an old motorcycle helmet, strings of bottle tops, feathers, vinyl discs, dolls, twigs, bottles, wire sculptures. A grubby ginger-and-white kitten sleeps in a patch of sunlight.

A squadron of paint tins -- house paint, not artists' oils -- stands ready to fly.

"I splash paint and let it drip this way or turn the canvas that way to capture feelings in that paint. They just come the way they come," says artist Solomon Muyundo, a.k.a. Solo7.

In a society where men are often judged on their wealth and ability to provide, Muyundo doesn't care what others think. But with a wife and two children to feed, his debt to shopkeepers often reaches the point where it's harder to beg for more credit than to go hungry.

"The art world is a difficult world because you consume your time drawing or painting but you don't know who will come to buy. Or when," the 31-year-old says. "Sometimes you're embarrassed to go and add to your debts. So sometimes we starve."

He waits for buyers. And waits. It's unpredictable: He never knows how much money he'll make in a month, if any.

People ask him why he chose such a hard road.

"It's something that lives in me. I used to do it for fun, in my free time, then I decided to do it full time. Since I was born, I've never been employed. I earn my living through art."

Despite the hardship, Muyundo says he's one of the freest men in Kibera.

"Art is all about moods, inspiration and how someone feels," he says. "It's not restricted or limited."

He feels like he was born lucky. His Solo7 signature is derived from his first name and the fact that he was the seventh born in his family on July 7, 1977, and he wears size 7 shoes.

The crowded dirt alleys of Kibera are full of street art, especially on its shops: small corrugated sheds daubed with garish images. But Muyundo, who started his professional life painting shop exteriors, says that though shopkeepers might be the biggest art clients in the slum, they're the least appreciative. To them, it's not art.

"They don't appreciate what we do. You do the work and they say, 'It took you all that time to do that little thing? You're robbing me!'

"And you feel embarrassed. I felt they were on my back, like I didn't know what I was supposed to do," he says as the kitten clambers onto his lap, purring.

When he was a boy, his art stood out so much that teachers from the higher classes would borrow him to copy drawings from textbooks onto the blackboard. The older children used to pay him a few shillings to copy the drawings into their books.

"It was a lot of money for me at the time. That's when I realized I could be an artist."

But when he was painting shop exteriors, he never had money for canvas, nor paint to spare for his own work.

In 2002, two artists in Kibera saw his work and invited him to join their cooperative. They gave him canvas and taught him to stretch it. When he sold his first painting in 2003, he paid them back and bought more canvas and paint.

"Since then I've sold hundreds of paintings," he says.

But his fame is Kibera is less as an artist than a sloganeer. When violence broke out across Kenya after disputed 2007 elections, he was afraid he'd be killed by tribal gangs that were rioting, looting, burning houses and shops, and attacking people, sometimes killing them with machetes. More than 1,200 died in the violence.

"I said, 'I'm an artist. I'll go and demonstrate on the streets but in a different way.' I went on the streets and took 4 liters of white paint. I started to write 'PEACE WANTED ALIVE,' or 'KEEP PEACE FELLOW KENYANS.' I decided to put the same message all over Kibera." He left his signature, Solo7.

But sometimes he ran into gangs of angry youths from the Luo tribe, burning the houses of Kikuyu tribe members. (The Kikuyu tribe of President Mwai Kibaki was accused of election fraud by Luo supporters of opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga.)

"I'd meet a number of youths, say 20 or 30, all armed with crude weapons like machetes or batons. I was armed only with paint and a brush. They said, 'Solo7, we see this message you've been writing everywhere. But what good is peace? What did it bring you?' "

They forced him to write their own slogan, "No Raila, No Peace." He had no choice. But he left his signature off.

Muyundo, who runs art classes every Saturday for slum children, says his aim in life is to keep on painting.

"The day you sell a painting, you've paid your debts," he says. "And you've got a little left over to go and buy canvas."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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