From Nairobi to Adelaide: Kenyan artists bring city's walls to life

Colourful graffiti art might brighten up the local area, but it's more than a form of expression for some artists.

A mural of Lupita Nyong'o painted as part of the Sanaa Festival Community Arts Festival.

A mural of Lupita Nyong'o painted as part of the Sanaa Festival Community Arts Festival. Source: Instagram/sanaa_fest

Bank Slave, Swift Nine and Joan Otieno are sizing up a brick wall in inner-city Adelaide. Soon they’ll transform it into art. 

“I like to make spaces better than the way they are,” Bank Slave tells SBS News. “You find a wall and it’s dead. You give it a soul.”

The three Nairobi-based artists are decorating selected blank wall canvases around Adelaide ahead of Sanaa Festival, a community arts celebration taking place this Saturday.

Like many street artists, Bank Slave prefers not to use his real name. Being anonymous brings protection in a pursuit that often flirts with breaking rules. But in Kenya, there’s another reason to operate covertly.

Bank Slave says he sometimes uses his work to challenge the actions of powerful figures, in particular, those involved in corruption. It's risky business, but he says painting allows him to say what others would be afraid to say out loud. 

“Once you come out as an activist, the police will arrest you, sometimes you will get tortured, you are beat down," he says.

“But when you put out an artwork, [it] can stay there for a while. People can question themselves, can question the authorities.”

Artist Joan Otieno aims to challenge the status quo in a different way, by breaking down gender stereotypes.

“Doing art in Nairobi as a female artist, it’s not easy,” she says.

“My parents, they never wanted me to do art. They don’t perceive it like a woman thing, you know? They would rather buy materials for the male artist. Materials are expensive.”

Her creations, elaborate pieces fashioned out of recycled waste, are in part a tribute to a lack of access to artistic tools.

“If we cannot afford the paints, we just collect garbage and do art with it,” she says.  

'Just want to do something nice, something beautiful' 

Bank Slave has already decorated another wall in Adelaide with a dazzling portrait of Lupita Nyong'o, hoping the Oscar-winning Kenyan-Mexican actress will inspire young woman from multicultural backgrounds.

“She has inspired a lot of girls in my country and all over Africa,” he says.

“The young girls were always bleaching their skin, trying to be white girls. Her coming up, an Oscar winner, beautiful black lady that inspired a lot of girls out there. For me, she is a hero.”

As co-painter Swift Nine mulls their next mural, he says the focus here in Australia is more aesthetic than provocative.

“I’m not really into politics because currently there are a lot of things affecting the whole world,” he says.

“I just want to do something nice, something inspiring, something beautiful.”

Sanaa Festival was founded by Adelaide filmmaker Victoria Lewis, who met the artists while working on her documentary ‘Slum Ballet’ in Nairobi.

“I meet so many amazing people, I think you become invested in their interests as well,” she says.

“It’s one way I can bring people back here and show [their talents] to the world.”

Sanaa Street Festival takes place on Eliza Street, Adelaide 2pm-midnight on Saturday 17 March. 

Published 16 March 2018 at 8:15pm