Visual artist Njogu Kuria transformed a room in his home into a studio. Vinyl records, packets of super glue and paint are all over the floor and some of his best artworks are leaning against the wall. Njogu calls it “an organized chaos”. He knows where everything is.
A gaze sweeps the room. A phrase “the earth has music for those who listen” is on the wall.
“I came across the quote in one of the records. I found it to be profound,” he explains.
He grew up in a home where music was always played. Recently, he attended Koroga Festival for the first time last year to see one of his favourite musicians, Congolese rhumba singer M’bilia Bel, perform. Music found its way to his craft.
Njogu works in vinyl records, fabrics and painting. He mostly brings to life portraits of African figures from records. The artist surprisingly has listened to most of these records from different parts of the world going as back as the ’50s.
“When you look at any piece of art here, there is a lot of music that has been represented and combined from all over the world onto a canvas,” he says.
He treats art as a business and he is able to make a living out of art alone as much as art is still viewed as a hobby instead of a job. A lot of the times he has also seen that aesthetic appeal of a piece of art is appreciated but there is unwillingness to purchase it.
“Art is interesting,” he paused. “You are very passionate about what you do and someone else has to decide whether or not your work is worth their money. Then, art is seen as a luxury and not as a necessity. I am establishing a balance to create out of passion and still earn money.
“Creatives could be making money as teachers of art if the subject was still part of the curriculum as we see in international schools. There still need to be more appreciation of art. It is a job. Artists have a role to play in the society. We put in effort and passion in our work,” he continued.
To make his contribution to the arts world, Njogu went on to co-found Studio Soku with his friend and fellow artist Jeremiah Sonko in early 2018. They held a free art mentorship programme and promoted collaborations and gave a platform for new artists to make a living off of their craft.
And then he abruptly left last year.
Exhaustion, he jumps in. Managing the gallery demanded so much more than he expected from him.
“I do not know how to ask for help. I rather do things by myself so that they come out as I want them to. I was uncomfortable too in some of the changes that had to take place at the gallery,”
The exhaustion heightened. Njogu went to Lamu to stay for a few days. During that time, he says that he stopped to care what would happen with him being away from the gallery. He came back. His romantic relationship ended. He left the studio once again, packed his clothes and went to Bungoma for three months. Although he was not diagnosed, he believes that he was going through depression and the break in Bungoma helped him come out of it.
Njogu bought a shell of a 1974 Volkswagen and built it with his father. He spent a big part of his time talking about mechanics and life from his father and learned many things about each other and then after three months, he came back to Nairobi to start to work again, this time in his home.
How is he feeling now?
“I am in a good place. I feel at peace. I am living my own life and I want to challenge myself by exploring different techniques in my art. I want to create a lot of works, and have more that I keep than I sell.”
“I want to own an art museum where I get to share what I have created and what I have collected from other artists. Fellow artist Jeffie Magina told me that he is working on building his legacy for his future generations in this way. With an art museum, people can come and pay to see my work even after I am gone. There is a place they can come to and see my collection. We have been leaving our legacy to art collectors and left with nothing of our own. I have realized that I do not have to sell every piece of art.
Will he go back to managing the gallery?
“I may do that. I am not certain of it right now,” he responds.