Kenya's railway art gets a new platform

By Damian Zane
BBC News, Nairobi


In the heart of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, alongside seemingly abandoned train carriages and overgrown tracks is a blossoming artists' community.

Just metres from a busy road, but screened by tall trees and long grass, it is hidden in plain sight. This has been home to the Bombsquad, or BSQ, Crew for just over a year.

The graffitied train carriages belong to Nairobi's railway museum and it feels as if they were parked behind its main exhibition hall decades ago.

The management agreed to rent a carriage to BSQ's three original members last year, who turned it into a studio. But as the group has grown to include 15 artists, the work has spilled into the adjoining yard.

In every corner and on every surface, a discarded board, a sculpture or installation is propped up, or stuck down or painted on.

There, on any given day, with music blaring from the small radio, artists are standing and sitting at easels or squatting over a canvas, peering closely at their work.

Twenty-six-year-old Brian Muasasia Wanyande, known by his artistic name Msale, is one of BSQ's trio of founders. He combines his love of calligraphy and fine art to produce abstract murals, tattoo designs, stickers and T-shirts.

He also does portraits and as he delicately paints one on the side of a discarded spray can, he speaks about his bold vision for BSQ.

"It's already a movement. For me, five to seven years from now, I'm looking at BSQ as defining the street art culture in Kenya and art in general," he says.

His work, along with some of the others in the group, is in demand. Advertisers and musicians want to use it as backdrops and clients are commissioning large murals.

For him, BSQ fuses the fine art of a canvas with the spray can on the wall. He feels that their style is "more African and more original" where they have developed a way to "express ourselves as young Africans".

To those who might think that art is not a way to make a good living, Msale is pragmatic.

Ever since his father died during his first year at university, he has had to support himself. He learnt that though it was hard work he could make money through his art.

But he does not feel he is compromising himself.

"There is always a need for artistic solutions. Whatever the problem is, it is up to you as an artist to come up with ways of how to solve it without limiting yourself," he says.

Ochieng Kenneth Otieno, 30, who goes by the name Kaymist, is one of the other BSQ founders.

Looking around at the artists at work, he reflects on what has happened over the last year.

"We didn't know it would be like this. It's grown and it surprises us every day, because it keeps growing every day," he says.

Kaymist paints a lot of portraits and says he is fascinated by the people whose gaze he meets as he walks past them in Nairobi.

"You communicate without talking and that is what captures me. You can misjudge them. Most of the time you miss points about people." And that is the feeling he is trying to recreate.

Unlike some of the others in BSQ, Kaymist did not have a formal art-school education as his family did not have the money to pay for it. But he was mentored and trained by Kenyan artist Patrick Mukabi, who appears to have inspired this generation.

In turn, Kaymist is now mentoring some of the artists here.

David Muchiri, 22, who signs his work Wes, is one of those who is learning his craft. After sending in his portfolio, he was accepted as an intern.

"I'm trying to challenge myself daily, do something different," he says as he works on what looks like a cubist interpretation of a lion.

"I am trying to develop a new style, mostly inspired by the artists I'm seeing here."

Alex Mwangi, 25, who goes by the name Lion's Art, chuckles as he talks about his latest work.

"I saw a chimpanzee at the Nairobi museum and I thought 'what if a chimpanzee was a soldier?' So I have given him a helmet and a bandana."

Lion's Art says the artists in BSQ support each other. "We mentor each other, we mix up ideas, we can have a collaboration. We love interacting and sharing, we learn from each other."

Working at an easel, just a few metres behind Lion's Art, is 23-year-old Ebruh Ndungu.

His happy demeanour contrasts with the pain of the contorted figure that he is painting. Her image is superimposed on a shopping receipt that was printed on the canvas.

"People don't know the struggles that some go through to pay bills," he says pointing at the portrait. "She's trying to figure it out."

But as for himself, he is upbeat about his prospects.

"This is all I do, this is a career, this is my lifestyle, my everyday gig. One way or another we're trying to figure out how to make money out of it."

Twenty-four-year-old Allan Kioko, whose artistic pseudonym is Think, leans into his canvas that is propped against a table.

He started doing graphic design at university but, he says, he dropped out "to focus on the real stuff".

"I had a liking for street art and I felt that if I rolled with these guys, I'd find myself doing this."

For Think, street art has a very broad definition: "Whatever you do on canvas, on paper, on computers - you take it to the streets."

That desire to communicate with a larger audience infuses the work of BSQ. This is a group that wants to actively engage with people rather than work on the craft in isolation.

"I want to give a chance to the kids who are growing up," BSQ founder Msale says. "We are going to create a space where children can say: 'I want to be an artist like the artists I saw in BSQ.'"

All photos BBC

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