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When Hollywood’s Kenyan superstar Lupita Nyong’o was photographed in 2015 striking a pose with two oversized tote bags, designed by Nairobi-based artist Michael Soi, it could have signalled a thawing of perceptions among some critics who’d previously accused the artist of depicting Kenyan women in scandalous scenarios.
In the proceeding years however, Soi has continued to court controversy, regularly exploring both Nairobi’s seedy underbelly and Kenya’s complex relationship with China in more recent work. Although Soi’s ethos is admired by locals and sought after throughout the international art community, his continued use of nudity across his oeuvre has drawn criticism from some members of the Kenyan establishment, which meant Soi fetched a ban on his works in 2017, from the National Museums of Kenya.
For an artist who prioritises being a man of the people, occasionally giving his artwork away for free, and one who prefers to stay out of the limelight, we could conclude that Michael Soi is actually a far better creator of art, than someone adept at avoiding controversy. Or maybe it’s the case that one of Africa’s foremost artists just isn’t afraid to hold up a mirror to Kenyan society – particularly at Nairobi’s nightlife – who rather it stayed in the shadows.
“I’ve been labeled a very controversial artist but I’m not controversial. Society is. What I’m doing is documenting certain moments, certain things that we love to do, but we do not want to discuss openly. That is what I’m documenting,” says Mr Soi in conversation with Turbare.
Actress Lupita Nyong’o and friend with Michael Soi tote bag. Photo: Facebook/ Lupita Nyong’o.
Soi began his career in 1995 after completing studies in fine art and art history at the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art in Nairobi. His work tackles current socio-political issues, with bold lines and brightly coloured satirical takes on topics that occupy the public imagination defining his style, meaning his works can be seen as a kind of photographic diary of Nairobi.
The artist delves into relationships, marriages, and the lives of sex workers and their clients – what he generally calls the economics of love – while also exploring issues pertaining to globalisation, and the corrupting effects of power. He makes work as part of a tradition of Kenyan cartoonists who like to throw jabs at the establishment, whether on canvas or on Nairobi’s matutu minibusses.
For an artist who isn’t represented by a gallery nor has an agent, preferring as he does to harness the power of social media to promote his work, Michael Soi did not shy-away from taking on a global superpower all by himself. Soi has emerged victorious from his own David Vs Goliath battle against China, who sent its agents to his Nairobi-based studio in an attempt to intimidate the artist, and rough-up some of his works, because of Soi’s refusal to be bullied into ceasing his 100 piece ‘China Loves Africa’ collection, which examines the symbiotic and often corrupt relationship between China and African politicians.
The Chinese agents rifled through stacks of artwork and tossed cans of paint around before Soi got them to leave. Yet barely a year after the ‘China Loves Africa’ project started, Mr. Soi and other Kenyan artists were exasperated when the majority of the artists selected to represent Kenya at the 2015 Venice Biennale were Chinese, none of whom had ever been to Kenya or referenced it in their art.
“The Shame in Venice, highlights the corruption emblematic in the relationship between Kenya and China.”
When an artist, Chinese or otherwise, shows at Venice, their stock increases, which could have boosted the art scene back in the East Asian nation. Such a move was emblematic of what Soi and many Kenyans see as the negative encroachment of Chinese influence over Kenya’s agency, both in politics, society, and art.
Mr Soi responded by creating a series of satirical paintings called The Shame in Venice, highlighting the corruption emblematic in the relationship between Kenya and China, and this raised questions of whether Kenya had sold its Art scene to China via Italy, whilst others chimed in calling the affair “neo-colonialism as multiculturalism.”
The Chinese superpower has built more infrastructural projects than anyone in post-colonial Africa, building highways, railroads, ports, and presidential palaces, and it is the continent’s largest trade partner. Yet as African governments pursue closer ties with Beijing, many like Mr Soi have used their voice to say the relationship is “one-sided” and amounts to a new form of colonialism.
One painting shows African leaders asleep while the Chinese take over the African Union in 2030. Another shows a doctor tending to a Chinese man who is hooked up to intravenous drips drawing energy from oil, gold, copper, and breastmilk from a topless African woman.
“The thing was, the China loves Africa series was something I started a few years ago and the intention was to do five pieces. But as the population of Chinese people in Africa grows, new aspects of this whole relationship started coming up. So I ended up doing 15 and then 20 and then 25, 30, 40 pieces until it got to 99 then I felt like 100 was a good number to stop. I didn’t want this thing to consume me because even today I have so much material that I could do. I have sold every single piece I made in that series, so, I just decided, ‘you know what, I have had enough’. Let me just stop at 100 and move on to other things”.
As he does, this cult art figure will further satirise city life, whether it’s strip clubs and their customers, dodgy preachers, or sex tourists, and by doing so, Soi says he hopes more art from Africa remains on the continent, as he puts ‘sweat and blood’ – and a whole lot of courage, into his work.
“I’m one of these people who would feel very happy knowing that three-quarters of all the work I did would remain on the continent, where it’s most relevant. We have to suffer the unfortunate event where we get people from the west who come to buy our art for interior design purposes, and you know whenever they decide to change a carpet in their house, that carpet will go with your painting, because somebody else will buy another artwork that now matches the new carpet. That is not why we do our art. It is not for interior design purposes. I think I’m happy if the bulk of my work actually remains in the continent. I’ll be so happy.”
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