Issues News Personalities

Michael Soi’s art draws wrath of Chinese

The other day visual artist Michael Soi took to his Facebook page to protest an incident where he got ‘visitors’ at his studio based at the Godown Arts Centre. ‘My latest piece ‘Santa is coming to town’ has finally drawn the wrath of the Chinese,” wrote Soi. “Four gentlemen and a lady from China walked into my studio and one of them went off about how ungrateful I was to all China is doing for Kenya…”


Initially one man got into his studio and after scanning some of his artworks burst off laughing. “He later went and came with the other guys,” he explains. “These people could not wrap their heads around the fact that I am not grateful for all the ‘good things’ China is doing to Kenya. I told them that I am an artist and therefore I cannot engage them in a political discussion.”

Incidentally, the visit from the Chinese ‘Delegation’ coincided with the much-talked about visit by the Chinese Prime Minister who came to the country with a bag of goodies, which included money to kick start the controversial Standard Gauge Railway

china loves africa 7

As an artist, Soi says that he has the license to question things. “We are not supposed to accept everything just because those in authority tell us they are good; that is how corruption scandals are hatched,” he adds. To be honest Soi says that he views the newly-found found friendship between Kenya and China with a lot of suspicion.

“The IMF and World Bank attach a lot of conditionalities before they give out their aid,” he says. “But the Chinese are giving their money without any conditions. This is one way of abetting impunity among our leaders; that no matter how many people are killed or imprisoned China will still pour in money, money that most likely ends up in people’s pockets and which will be paid by our children in years to come.”

The piece that so much angered the Chinese forms part of the popular China Loves Africa, a series of paintings that takes a mischievous and satirical look at the relation between China and Africa. In his pieces Soi takes the view that China is not necessarily genuine in her relations with Africa. In one piece titled China Loves Africa 7, the Chinese are portrayed holding elephant tusks and rhino’s horn. This is in reference to the allegations that it is the Chinese that are fueling the runaway poaching of these products. Interestingly when the Chinese Premier was in town, together with his host Uhuru Kenyatta, made a symbolic visit to the Nairobi National Park. He even gave out money meant to go towards fighting poaching.

Soi has landed an invite to do an exhibition in South Korea, where the China Loves Africa series will be a major attraction.

china loves africa 8

Apart Sino-Africa affairs the burly artist has developed an interesting character called Omari. He uses the character to highlight the ills that take place in the society. The typical Omari character is possibly a coastal native who sees the only way of earning an income is by hooking up with white women. “My intention is to ask whether these relationships are genuine,” explains Soi. “Most of these boys drop out of school at an early age to go after these women. I have spoken with some of these boys and they tell me they are in it for the money. They believe that a Mzungu will help them cross the poverty border.”


“In most cases the African boys have wives at home. One might think that it is Omari who is lying to the Mzungu but the woman is also doing her fair share of lying; some these women come to Africa with the knowledge that the relationship will last for as long they are here,” explains Soi who adds that Kenyan tourism, especially at the coast, is fuelled by sex.

Seduction ritual

Soi says that he likes to make his art simple. “What you see is what you get,” he says. “I paint what I see; I am not in the business of judging people.” This is especially so in his pieces where he shows men in strip joints. “I have been accused of portraying society in negative light but then it is a fact that men, even ‘decent’ church going types visit these joints where women are skimpily dressed.” In any case, he adds that strip joints are not cheap places to visit. “They are frequented by people with deep pockets; not your everyday ‘pervets’; I do not create these things.” he adds.

Soi's bag

Soi who mostly works with acrylics on canvas has series of portraits that he sews on to women’s handbags. “These are what pay bills,” he says. “They have become so popular with women I can barely meet the demand.” Each bag goes for sh3,000.


Events Issues News Personalities Releases

Ngugi’s new book launched in Nairobi

Kenya’s most celebrated author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was in town and there is no way I was going to miss the occasion of launching his newest book, Re-membering Africa. This was yet another opportunity for me to interact with the cream of Kenya’s literary society – who in their right mind would dare miss an event graced by Ngugi?
I am walking to the Alliance Francaise, where the launch is taking place, when Billy Kahora, the Kwani? editor calls me from South Africa. There are some details I wanted clarified on the second edition of Kwani? 5, I am reviewing for the Sunday Nation.
I have particularly strong views on a certain Kwani? writer, which I am including in the review. “I have no problem with what you have to say as long as it is constructive criticism,” Kahora says from the other end of the phone. Hmm…
I am a bit late for the event, as usual, and Henry Chakava, the chairman of East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), Ngugi’s local publishers, is almost halfway into his speech.
My feelings of guilt are banished by the reception I get from Lydia, who is looking particularly hot tonight. Lydia, for those who do not know, is the receptionist at EAEP’s Westlands offices.
As he finishes his speech, Chakava addresses the issue of language in the book being launched. Remember Ngugi had sworn to only write in his Gikuyu language? Is Ngugi backtracking on his vow? “Sometimes it makes sense to tell them (Mzungu) in their own language,” says Chakava as he welcomes Ngugi.
As usual Ngugi welcomes members of his family present. Of particular interest is a young man, in his early twenties, who someone whispers to me, is a product of Ngugi and a Mzungu woman in Sweden. Apparently, the young man must have been conceived in the early years of Ngugi’s exile.
Ngugi then makes a revelation that he is working on his memoirs. The first installment is titled Dreams in a Time of War, which basically talks about his early childhood. Already five publishers around the world have already bought publishing rights of the book! I told you Ngugi was big.
Publishers in the region must envy EAEP. They are automatically assured of rights for Ngugi’s works.
And to appreciate how this relationship came about Ngugi tells of how far he has come with Chakava. At some point Chakava almost had his finger severed for continuing to publish Ngugi at the time when the powers that be wanted nothing to do with him. He is also the man who had to bear with Ngugi’s experimentation in writing in Gikuyu, in spite of repeated warnings from his superiors – then Heineman Educational Publishers in the UK.
Unconfirmed reports say that Ngugi is a major shareholder at EAEP.
Re-membering Africa, is apart of a series of lectures Ngugi gave in 2002, staring with Harvard. In the book he has addressed issues of language. Well aware that his thoughts might spark off heated debates Ngugi said that when people read the book, they will agree, disagree or add onto his ideas. “Most of all, I just wanted to provoke a debate,” he said.
On the issue of language, he said that there is nothing wrong for Africans to learn foreign languages. “However, there is something fundamentally wrong when one identifies with other people’s languages and despises his own language,” he said heatedly, calling that a form of slavery.
He added that to add foreign languages to your own language is to empower oneself. Mnaskia hiyo maneno?
Check this space for a review of this book.
The book was first published early this year by Basic Civitas Books under the title Something Torn and new: An African Renaissance.

Events News

Finally, the Storymoja Hay Festival

The inaugural edition of the historic Storymoja Hay Festival finally opened yesterday at the Impala Grounds, along Ngong Road. The Impala Grounds have in the last 15 years increasingly grown in stature, made popular by the annual Safari Sevens rugby tournament, but that is a story for a another day.
As I was saying, The Storymoja Hay Festival kicked off yesterday, and the biggest and the best, the literary and artistic community has ever witnessed in Kenya, will be stomping the grounds, harder than the rugby maestros have ever done in a single event.
Before I embark on my story, it’s a hats off to Muthoni Garland, and her tireless team of Storymoja team, who have made sure that this event actually takes off. And I mention names here, Carol Gaithuma, Sheila Ongas, Millie Dok – she actually went to Scotland – Matin Njaga – he of the Brethren of Ng’ondu – Sitawa Namwalie – Cut off my Tongue – , Joshua Ogutu – In the Land of the Kitchen – among others.
How Storymoja managed to convince Hay to partner with them, is something Muthoni will have to tell me. What is it they have done differently? After all the Hay Festival is not your daily Migingo, Mau Forest or Hague for that matter.
So I check in a bit late – 3.30 pm – and the car park is almost full. Er, I came in a matatu, if you must know. The first vehicle I notice is Lawrence Njagi’s SUV. Njagi is the young CEO of Mountain Top Publishers, and the chairperson of the Nairobi International Book Fair. He is here to be in the panel of publishers discussing the sticky subject of whether Kenyans read. Do they?
On my way inside I notice Annette Majanja, the diminutive former Kwani? publicist. I last saw her in September last year, and try as I could I could not get her to tell me where she is working nowadays.
Once inside, the first person I notice is Moraa Gitaa. She can really tell a story, this Moraa. Her book, Crucible for Silver and Furnace for Gold, a mouthful, I must say, is on sale at the Savani’s Book Stand. She tells me that my Friend Onduko bw’ Atebe is also in the house. Atebe’s first book The Verdict of Death won the inaugural Wahome Mutahi Prize for literature in 2006, a really tight book, I must say. Why do I get the feeling that this is one writer, whom the Kenyan literary crowd is yet to appreciate? Maybe Kenyans don’t read after all.
Atebe is with John Mwazemba, the publishing manager of Macmillan Kenya limited, who is also a prolific writer in the papers. He is chairing the discussion on the reading culture. Moraa had told me she was itching to put Mwazemba on the firing line, and I made a mental note of being there when her shot goes off.
Mwazemba is on the phone talking with Tony Mochama, the Smitta. Apparently, Smitta, who is launching his book, The Road to Eldoret, at the Goethe Institut today – will I make it for the launch really – has been promising Mwazemba he is coming to the Festival for the last four hours. Cheeky Smitta.
Its rather chilly – its July anyway – and there are not that many people on the opening day, maybe due to the fact that it is a weekday. I am sure place will be teeming with humanity today and tomorrow, what with all the hype and publicity that has surrounded the event.
People look rather subdued, perhaps due to the cold, but Mburu Kimani, the movie man is just in shirt, something to do with his bodybuilder’s physique. After promising to give me an exclusive of his forthcoming TV series, Mheshimiwa, I move on to the Kenya Burning tent, where they are exhibiting images of the post election violence. I have a copy of the picture book, done by Kwani? and the Godown Arts Centre, but I can’t resist going inside.
There, the pictures, of the various events that accompanied that dark period are hung on the wall, not looking frightening at all. I could not help but notice that most of the pictures tell the story of ODM and PNU, and how its supporters set the country on fire, both literary and metaphorically.
Isn’t it interesting that barely a week ago, Kibaki and Raila, all exuding lovey dovey camaraderie, shared lunch in Raila’s Bondo home, yet their infantile quarrel over votes led to the deaths of more than a thousand Kenyans, shame on them. Oh and Raila and Ruto, his lieutenant then, are not in speaking terms, but for how long?
At the end of the room, I notice that there is an adjoining room, and I can almost guess what is in there. I hadn’t seen any frightening images. It is then that I see the notice, “Viewer Discretion” pinned at the entrance to the small room.
Inside there, I am met by some of the most foul and disturbing images I will ever set my eyes on. All of a sudden, the room gets cramped and stuffy, and I feel sick in my stomach. It’s like a morgue, and yes there is a picture of people viewing bodies inside a morgue. I can almost feel the stench. I am brought back to the present by gasps of horror from the other people watching the images from hell.
These are Kenyans who turned against their fellow Kenyans, all because politicians told them to. My mind rushes back to the day’s headlines. NO Tribunal, HagueThe Standard. Split Cabinet gives up on a special tribunalDaily Nation. Pictures of Kibaki alongside Raila feature prominently. It is getting increasingly clear that the victims of the post election violence will not be getting any justice any time soon.
I get out of the tent feeling nauseated and angry. My “foul mood” – ala Kibaki – is soon lifted when I see Carol of Storymoja. She has been working tirelessly seeing to it that I am completely updated on the Festival and its refreshing to see her.
She is in the rather shabby looking media tent – I am comparing this with last year’s media tent which came complete with a free tea/coffee and snacks corner. To all ye journalists expect no such freebies this year.
Carol accompanies me and soon we meet Wachuka Mungai, the managing editor of Kwani? Kingwa Kamencu, the writer – To Grasp at a Star – cum literary activist is also there looking absolutely smashing. She promises to buy coffee later. Billy Kahora, the Kwani? editor too is here, and he wants to know if I still remember today’s event, where I am in the panel interviewing Malindi-based visual artiste Richard Onyango.
Around the corner we meet a harassed Muthoni Garland, she’s just been from the main stage making announcements. Surely there should be other MCs helping her out in this event.
Leaving Muthoni behind, we meet James Murua, who had been running a session on Internet dating, accompanied by my two favourite poets, Njeri Wangari, aka the Kenyanpoet and Eudia Kamonjo, They are also bloggers. They are also running their own shows at the Festival. Apart from running his social, Murua is also a columnist with the Nairobi Star, now The Star.
I also see Oyunga Pala, the man behind the popular Man Talk column in the Saturday Nation. He has been running a session on Men Under Attack. He is a former editor of Adam magazine.
From then on my eyes get to behold the various personalities in the literary and art scene, I am somewhat overwhelmed. I can see Parsalelo Kantai, a two time Caine Prize nominee. Mukoma wa Ngugi, also nominated for Caine this year. And why is no one mentioning that he is Ngugi wa Thiong’os son? Or is it that he has come of age and can stand his own? Hmm…
I can also see Ugandan David Kaiza and his compatriot Doreen Baingana, she of Tropical Fish, Movie maker Judy Kibinge, writer Rasna Warah. I also espied Petina Gappah, the Zimbabwean lawyer whose collection of short stories An Elegy for Easterly – a wonderfully written story – is just out. Eh and Richard Onyango is also there. Why did I always conjure up images of him as a tall and muscular person? Well, he is tall alright and er, rather skinny.
Remember, there is also Hanif Kureishi, a renowned filmmaker and author, and bestselling author Vikram Seth. What more could one wish for? Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka was supposed to have come, but he didn’t. I will tell you that story another day. Our very own Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai will be there.
Its time to get into the Whether Kenyans read forum and apart from Mwazemba, Njagi and Baingana, there is also Bibi Bakare, who runs Cassava Republic Publishing house in Nigeria. I must have missed Moraa’s firing shot as Billy Kahora calls me to the beer tent to Meet Richard Onyango.
I also meet events cum fashion show organizer Leakey odera, who is all geared up to stage a cat walk later in the evening. I later meet him, looking rather downcast and he tells me that authorities have decreed that everything should close down after 6.30 pm, the killjoys!
It is time go home and Atebe gives me a lift in his Subaru. We discuss business, and heatedly debate Michela Wrong’s controversial book Its our Turn to Eat.
I’ll be back tomorrow. Tune in for another update.