Framing a future for Kibera’s M2 (Maasai Mbili) artists collective

Story and Photos by Ron Reason

[For a variety of other essays and collected writings and images of my work in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World, visit this link.]

Among first impressions of visiting Nairobi’s massive Kibera slum: the place is a lot more colorful, and visually expressive and inspiring, than one might expect. Graffiti, yes, but powerful political language and imagery, and imaginative signage for businesses and social groups are in abundance:

I comment to my guide, Noor Khamis, about the assault on the senses. I’ve taught graphic design and typography, and have an interest in contemporary art, particularly outsider art, so found myself lingering at these visually enticing spots to take photos or ponder the techniques or materials used.

“Let’s go visit the guys who do most of this,” he suggests. “They aren’t far from here.” Noor, a Reuters photographer, is also a resident of the outskirts of Kibera, has photographed here extensively and knows absolutely everyone. Within minutes, we are trotting over to a 2-story ramshackle building that housed the M2 (Maasai Mbili) artists collective, I am introduced to some of its members and get a chance to poke around:

I’m greeted by Solo 7. “Solo?” I ask. “After Solomon. But I do my best work alone.” I recognize the name from prominent signatures on political graffiti around town, mostly protesting the legislative and electoral corruption rampant in Kenya. He explains that the studio serves as a place of inspiration and pride for many in the community, and a refuge for a number of creatively motivated youth who hang out here and receive ad hoc art lessons from the adults. As we chat, a local boy is gathering and manipulating scraps of wire and metal into a sculpture.

“Almost all our materials are found in the dump. Mostly used cans of paint. We paint on scraps of plywood left over from construction, or if a building is demolished. We scavenge for metal, wire, anything that might be made into art.” They define the term broadly (as do I). I review the art on display, and sure enough, there’s a homemade quality to it, but a terrific charm. Some of it is abstract landscape, of the rusty tin roofs out their window; some is charming signage for beauty salons or butcher shops; much has a political bite.

We chat a bit longer and they tell me how they exhibit, occasionally, in Nairobi galleries. They host visitors from foreign countries (such as myself) and recently had a patron from Norway put some of their work on exhibit there. They talk about the need for “real” art supplies, and the threat of ever-rising rent from the local mafioso who own (or at least control) the ramshackle structure they work in. They have aspirations to raise money to formally acquire the structure, and then create a fund for maintenance and improvements.

Shortly after this time, I return to my home base in Chicago, where I’ve set up new offices in an arts district on the south side. The property managers invite me to open my doors, if I like, during their “second Fridays” gallery walk nights. I seize the idea, and begin curating monthly shows for artists I admire, friends who need exposure for their work, students and others. I have the idea, for my next trip to Kenya, of hauling back some of the M2 art, selling it, and raising funds for the community. Some will go to toward expenses for the community library I am setting up; some will go toward arts programs and the property purchase.

Back in Kenya, I luck out when my client, the Standard Media Group (one of East Africa’s largest news publishers) takes an interest in my side projects, and agrees to pay for shipping of some of the heavier, larger art pieces back to Chicago. I carry a few with me on the next plane ride home. I gathered the M2 work, and some of my photographs, into a broad exhibit of life and art in the Kenyan slum, called “Hope in a Hard Place,” and end up with a terrific turnout and decent sales after promoting the event online and in Chicago media:

One concern for anyone doing small-scale charity work in Africa: How do you know the money will actually go to where the recipients say? Even with best intentions, you are aware of the pervasiveness of corruption.

Coincidentally, while planning the exhibit I get an inquiry from Nairobi’s Kuona Trust, a nonprofit foundation that supports artists throughout Kenya. They have heard from the M2 artists about our acquaintance, and my interest in their development, and ask if there are opportunities for alliance. They mention the start of a campaign to formally manage the fundraising for M2 to procure their facility from their landlords; I mention the idea of the gallery show to raise funds for the same. We agree that channeling funds through the trust is the way to go.

On later visits to Kibera, after the facility has been formally turned over to the collective, I spend significant time hanging out with the artists. I meet the youth who benefit from increased access to better supplies. I chat with the adults about the added security of not wondering if they will lose their housing from month to month. They tell me about new opportunities for showing and selling their work. It’s a source of pride for them, and of envy for others in the community who would love such a reliable pipeline to visibility, engagement and income. My interactions and observations continue to provide a source of photographic inspiration:

The inspiration of M2 echoes as life goes on. Later I volunteer in art classrooms of the Chicago public primary schools, and see reflections of M2’s enthusiasm, creativity with cheap materials, and lack of self-consciousness in their work. I’m asked to be on the board of Intuit, Chicago’s museum of outsider art, for several years, and gain a greater appreciation of self-taught artists from elsewhere in the world. And my own photography takes more organic, expressive turns as I pursue abstract subjects in my work and personal projects:

I have discovered a particular bent toward pursuing abstract images while in wilderness, especially the Western U.S. National Parks – an odd and unexpected influence of a collection of self-taught slum artists half a world away. Once again, my explorations in Africa have provided a great lesson in the threads and connections to be found in international travel, work and acquaintance.

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