Why you should care
A self-sustaining art space in Kenya is encouraging youths to see themselves as artists, and to not be defined by circumstances.
Alongside an open sewer, a small child is sprinting to catch an afternoon art class, which happens to be taking place at a converted shipping container topped with jagged iron plates. One of the smiling teachers welcomes me inside the two-room structure lined with mostly oil color and mixed media portraits. This is a vibrant art space in Kenya’s Kibera, Africa’s biggest urban slum, and its existence is a minor miracle.
The Uweza Art Gallery is both an exhibition space and an art school, and it’s financially self-sustaining. Here’s what makes that significant. Kibera’s kids — in a community of 250,000 that is under constant threat of disease and offers few opportunities — are freely encouraged to attend a space that nurtures their artistic talents without affecting their studies in regular school. It’s a win for the art gallery and a win for youth self-esteem — but not all of the community’s parents see it that way.
Why build an art school in the middle of one of the world’s largest slums, a bustling scene of ramshackle tin houses and a dysfunctional railroad lined with garbage? It made perfect sense to resident Jennifer Sapitro, an American entrepreneur and public health and international development graduate who set up the Uweza Foundation, an organization dedicated to developing the abilities and talents of Kibera’s youth, in 2008. One day, while wandering through the slum, Sapitro decided to build and sponsor an art school here. The location was chosen for its proximity to the road, where everyone can see it, explains Frank Okoth, one of school’s four art teachers.
In 2011, Uweza started with simple art classes for kids, Sapitro explains. Two years after, the gallery officially opened. These days, around 25 students, ranging in age from 7-37 — all from the Kibera slum — attend daily classes. Art supplies are free for kids “so they work from scratch,” Okoth explains. He’s been with Uweza since 2013. His father wants him to leave art and become a mechanic, he says, but he refuses.
Around the gallery, there’s everything from pieces inspired by the Masai tribes to vibrant paintings of animals. I spot a canvas depicting a woman dancing while kneeling. It was painted by a 17-year-old girl who’s not attending today’s class, Okoth explains, because she has to stay home and do housework, like many other girls her age. Living in very poor conditions, most families in the community view art as unnecessary and a waste of time — as opposed to other jobs and crafts that yield quick cash. But some parents are starting to warm to the idea of art as a cash-earner, seeing the value in Uweza Gallery.
Sixty percent of the profits from artwork sold in the gallery goes to the artist (or school fees if the artist is a student). The rest is reinvested in art supplies and pays for rent and gallery upkeep. Customers vary from locals to global art collectors who shop in person or online. Pieces range in price from $35-$110.
He later tells me he’d like to be like Pablo Picasso.
Apart from Kevin Otieno, who’s studying art at college, the teachers do not have formal training. Otieno says Okoth is the best artist he’s met. Okoth responds: “People here have dreams. So, while Kevin might want to be like me, I want to be like someone else.” (He later tells me he’d like to be like Pablo Picasso.)
While roaming the buzzing classroom, one of the girls, Winnyteresa, 10, tells me that one day she hopes to become an art teacher. “I’d like to help other children draw too,” she adds. Elvis, also 10, on the other hand, would like to be a doctor. “I learn a lot about bodies for when I become a doctor,” he says, yet he’s rarely seen without a paintbrush in hand.
A short distance from Uweza, there is a mural painted by one of the initiative’s promising young talents. Wandering along the tracks overlooking Kibera’s rickety infrastructure, an overwhelming sense of hope rises to eclipse any dejection I’ve had for this tumbledown place.