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Pop culture comes alive in matatu art

A description of Kenyan culture would be incomplete without the inclusion of the buses and mini-buses – colloquially known as matatus – that make up a large part the country’s public transport system. This is because these vehicles comprise a fascinating facet of the country’s pop culture.

Brian Wanyama, or Graff, as he is popularly known on the streets of Nairobi, has been cataloguing Kenya’s matatu culture through online platforms for 11 years.

“I grew up in Nairobi’s Buru Buru, where many of Nairobi’s garages are located. I had the opportunity to witness first-hand as matatus were fabricated from scratch. This included body panelling, glass fitting, the installation of seats and TV screens and, most intriguing for me, the paintwork. I took photos of the newest matatus in town and uploaded them on Facebook one day and the response was amazing; many people shared my posts. I, therefore, decided to create social media pages dedicated to matatus,” says Wanyama, who runs the popular Matwana Matatu Culture pages on Instagram and Facebook.

MATATU CULTURE

“My main aim is to preserve the matatu culture and pass it down to future generations,” reveals the blogger, who is looking forward to becoming a curator.

“I am currently searching for the right partners with whom I can build a modern museum for the matatu industry. I also hope that one day Nairobians will be able to organise carnivals and festivals just to appreciate matatus.”

Most of the 20,000 or so matatus that operate in Nairobi are embellished with drawings, hand-painted portraits and bold, unique designs.

“When you stand by the road, you don’t see buses and mini vans. You see art. You see Kenyan pop culture coming to life,” Wanyama says.

Of particular note is the striking artwork that covers both the interior and exterior of the matatus, with every matatu trying to be flashier and more attractive than the rest.

The matatu that I board on my way to an interview is no different. Its name, “The Beast”, is emblazoned in golden-plated metal grilles across its body. It has numerous paintings of former US President Barack Obama, who happens to have his roots in Kenya. Inside, the decked matatu has no fewer than a dozen LCD screens, which are complemented by a quKartarty audio system.

NIGHT-CLUB-ON WHEELS

The night-club-on-wheels ambience is further enhanced by strobe lights that flash around the window frames. In addition, fast and free Wi-Fi is provided on board.

Mohammed Kartar, the proprietor of Moha Graffix. PHOTO | LUKORITO JONES
Mohammed Kartar, the proprietor of Moha Graffix. PHOTO | LUKORITO JONES

One of the places where vehicles like The Beast get spruced up is Moha Graffix, a garage located in the heart of Eastleigh in Nairobi. DN2 arrives at the workspace at about noon to find the garage’s proprietor, 39-year-old Mohammed Kartar, on his knees, sketching a design on the body of a matatu.

Standing around him are about 20 of his students and assistants, who observe every movement of their trainer’s hands with the keenness of medical interns watching their boss conduct a brain surgery.

Kartar is wearing earphones which, he says, block out distractions from the outside world. He later reveals that the earpieces also help prevent him from hearing any comments about his work by onlookers.

“As I am working, someone might make a negative remark about my unfinished art, which might make me lose morale and get distracted. On the other hand, when you’re painting and someone makes a positive remark about your work, you tend to become overconfident, and this will inevitably ruin the final piece,” he says.

Kartar adds that music, especially reggae and bongo (music from Tanzania), calms his mind and helps him focus completely on his work.

WORK OF ART

For two hours, all work has stopped at the garage as workers and passers-by mill around Kartar to watch him do what he does best — turning a plain vehicle body into an attractive work of art. Today he is translating the image of American Christian hip hop artist, Lacrae, onto a 14-seater mini-bus. Were it not for the continuous hum of a generator that powers Kartar’s airbrush one could have heard a pin drop in the garage.

When Kartar declares that he is finally done, the crowd gives a brief round of applause before dashing to take selfies with the newly decorated ride. He says it takes him about two days to work on a mini van and five days to decorate a bus. The artwork costs about Sh60,000 for a small van and can go up to Sh200,000 for a bus.

Meanwhile, Mr Ken Deya, the owner of the matatu which Kartar has just named Christhood, seems happy with Kartar’s work.

“This matatu used to ply an upcountry route but I wanted to use it in Nairobi. I put it on the road for two weeks but it was getting very few customers because Nairobians, especially the youth, wouldn’t board a matatu that wasn’t hip. That’s why I brought it to Moha so that he can make it more attractive to help me increase my profit margins,” Mr Deya offers.

SPRUCE UP VEHICLE

At his garage in Eastleigh, Kartar runs an apprenticeship programme that has churned out more than 100 “quKartarfied” artists to put spruce up vehicles.

Peter Kariuki, one of the apprentices, describes Kartar as a strict but effective teacher. “You need to put a lot of effort before he can trust you to hold an airbrush,” the 20-year-old says.

Willyhelmina Ngowi, 18, stands out among the students because she’s the only female. Like Kartar, she also started her career in art by painting on canvas, but that became boring after a while.

Apprentices  Willyhelmina Ngowi and Peter Kariuki sketching the outline of the  design they want to translate onto the body of a matatu. PHOTO | LUKORITO JONES
Apprentices Willyhelmina Ngowi and Peter Kariuki sketching the outline of the design they want to translate onto the body of a matatu. PHOTO | LUKORITO JONES

“Marketing canvas paintings in Kenya is difficult, so I ended up with numerous unsold works. Since I’ve always had a passion for cars, I looked for Moha and he agreed to take me in as a student.”

Asked whether she feels intimidated working in a male-dominated industry Ngowi replies that what a man can do, a woman can do even better.

“It is true that many people benefitting from the matatu industry are men. I hope to one day open my own garage, where I will train and inspire more women to join the industry,” she says confidently.

Generally matatus are known for their wild driving, loud music, and equally loud artwork. Some people do not consider the artwork on them an expressive art form, but as offensive drawings. It was this school of thought that led to a ban on matatu artwork in 2004 as part of the government’s plan to rein in the industry. Apart from a standard yellow stripe, nothing else was permitted on the public service vehicles.

BAN LIFTED

The ban was lifted only a decade later, when a new government came to power.

Kartar was hit extremely hard by the ban and was forced to lay off more than half his staff.

“Those 10 years were very tough. I couldn’t understand why ordinary citizens and artists had to suffer just because some people in grey suits at the Ministry of Transport could not wrap their heads around art. That ban was very idiotic,” he says.

On the other side of Nairobi in the affluent suburb of Lavington is the Circle Art Gallery, inside of which hang magnificent matatu artwork by one of Kenya’s leading contemporary artists, Dennis Muraguri.

Muraguri, who has been an artist for 13 years, uses painting, printmaking, installations and sculpturing for his body of work inspired by matatus. He credits the Circle Art Gallery for supporting him when he exhibited at the 1:54 international Contemporary Art Fair in London last year.

“Even though art lovers from Europe and America are unfamiliar with matatus, they still bought my works for their abstract appeal,” he says.

When you step inside Muraguri’s studio at Kuona Trust in Hurlingham, Nairobi, you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve just entered a matatu museum. The matatu woodcut prints on paper and woodcut plates are the most striking, if just for their sheer size. One of the prints depicts financial institutions, city authorities and the police extorting money from matatu operators. It is titled “Chakula ya Nguruwe”, which is Kiswahili for “Food for swine.”

Growing up near a bus park, Muraguri never dreamt of becoming a lawyer, pilot, neurosurgeon or engineer as was the norm among most of his peers. He was blown over by the idea of becoming a matatu tout or driver.

CRAZY DRIVING SKILLS

“Matatus were very fascinating to me as a child. The agility the touts displayed when jumping in and out of the vehicles, the crazy driving skills, hanging on doors of speeding vehicles… All these acrobatics always left me awed,” says the artist.

Muraguri further remembers that, back then, matatus shaped every aspect of peoples’ social interactions, from the language they used to the music they listened to. Sheng, a yet-to-be-standardised language that serves as the unofficial lingua franca in the country, traces its roots to matatu crews.

“The first time you heard a Shengword was in a matatu. The first time you heard a new song or watched a new music video was in a matatu. At one time I seriously contemplated dropping out of school to become a tout,” says Muraguri.

However, his mother would hear none of her son’s aspirations to become a tout, so she sent him to the Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts instead. He graduated top of his class in 2004.

“Everybody in Kenya has their own matatu story,” the artist points out. “Riding in a matatu is not just for its primary purpose of transportation. It’s immersing oneself in a moving theatre. For the observant, a trip in a matatu is even more intriguing than a Hollywood blockbuster. Kenyans have embraced even the perceived unruliness and indiscipline in the matatu sector, and all these provide me with great fodder for my artwork,” Muraguri says.