Jackie Karuti in conversation with Dennis Muraguri


I recently sat down with Dennis Muraguri who I also happen to share a studio with, over tea and chapati. We delved into a discussion outlining his practice in general and his upcoming exhibition at Circle Art Gallery opening on the 28th of June 2016. It will be a presentation of new work in different media; prints, video work to sculptures which are a comment on traditional masks from different African countries and the inadequacy of our own history especially in reference to the Kenyan art scene. We also talked a lot about the what he is most known for; Matatu’s.

Maybe it’s because now Muraguri drives to work while I cycle or walk. But away from those luxuries, we both occasionally find ourselves taking a matatu to go somewhere all the while reliving days when the mayhem was at a high and rules were broken without any regard to the law. The Michuki rules introduced by the late transport & communications minister, John Michuki however changed a lot of things. He instituted regulations in February 2004 that required all public service vehicles to install speed governors, passenger safety belts, operate in clearly defined routes, to carry a specified number of passengers and their drivers and conductors to be disciplined and to have a clean security record. Graffiti and loud music was also toned down. The moving theater was tamed for a while. That said, the mayhem is still very much alive as is the disregard of the law. Matatu culture, in Nairobi especially, is rife with humour, chaos, and self expression among other things. On any given day you’re likely to see stickers inside matatus with messages like, No seat belts…we die like heroes or If you’re satisfied with the service, kiss the driver. Matatu’s still are and will likely remain the kings of the road and the Madonnas of the streets, as is the name of one matatu I recently spotted.


Jackie Karuti: Haya, tuambie wewe ni nani.


Dennis Muraguri: I think I’d introduce myself by first saying why I am an artist. Before I could write, I could draw. One of the earliest memories I have is my uncle drawing a matatu for me & I loved it. I lived somewhere near a bus park and even for him the influence came from that. He wasn’t an artist really but he loved drawing. He however snapped at me one day when I asked him to draw for me & so from then on I decided to do it myself. In school also I could draw better than anyone and it always surprised me that not everyone could do it. Those are my earliest memories. I was also intrigued by movie posters that had childhood heroes like Rambo, & Kungfu masters. I was also lucky enough to go to a high school that had art as an examinable subject. It wasn’t introduced however until my second year and after that it messed up my studies because It took precedence over everything else.


JK: Later you ended up going to one of the most notable art colleges in Nairobi at the time yes?


DM: Yes. But I’d always wanted to be a pilot. I thought it would be a heavy burden to my mum financially so I let go of that dream. My friends and I would go on a drinking binge for days after high school and my mum got really concerned about my life. One day she asked me what I wanted to do and I said art. She really just wanted me out of the house. This is when I enrolled at Buruburu Institue of Fine Arts (BIFA). It was a four year course and it got hectic at times but I ended up graduating top of my class. College sort of solidified my belief in art.


JK: I know for starters that I’m opposed to certain ways of structured education where room for self expression is not encouraged. Was that a concern of yours at the time?


DM: Yes. I hated someone having to tell me what to do. I felt like I was always rebelling against the system. I also knew that I didn’t want an office job for sure. But it gave me skills that I’d otherwise not have known. Later on, after I had joined Kuona Trust, I still found the communal space to be structured and for a while I didn’t want to be part of it. I feel like there is a kind of validation with institutions like Kuona Trust sometimes, where almost every serious artist in Kenya has passed through. It’s problematic because nobody really wants that. But it’s still an important platform.


JK: Right. So what changed?


DM: My mum had a child. My mum is kind of young for someone who has a son as old as myself. (Laughs). The only reason I ended up joining Kuona was to escape babysitting duty. At the time, Kepha Mosoti a fellow artist whom I’d gone to college with had come to live with us and so we ended up joining Kuona Trust together.


JK: Is this how you got into painting?


DM: I had started out on a surrealistic style of painting and that’s what I was doing when I came to Kuona, even though I’d already been selling a bit of my work before then. I then started looking for places to take my work. These were places like the now defunct Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art (RAMOMA) which was a big deal back then. One time I sold all my pieces for this one show and I was even asked for more. It sort of validated my work and so I kept doing gallery rounds, selling my work and doing illustrations. Actually one of the books I once illustrated ended up winning a major award but I cannot even remember. The point is it gave me money to go by. But it was quite hard because still nobody took you seriously.


JK: And then how did you transition into sculpture making?


DM: So I was really trying to get away from painting. At the time there was a lot of construction where my studio was. Kuona Trust was based at the Godown then. Charles Ngatia, a fellow artist was always repurposing found objects and transforming them into art. This appealed to me & he really influenced my way of working. It was also a rebellion to the more traditional masks originating from different African countries because I wanted to create something different. I also knew I wanted to do something with clocks and sewing machines.


JK: Any reason why those particular objects?


DM: The first people I knew were a cobbler, a shoemaker and a tailor. The level of concentration I saw in them fascinated me. I used to watch the guy who fixed clocks, especially the mechanical watches and I’d try to put together parts he’d throw away. That’s why the first sculpture I ever did was a clock. Incidentally, Kuona Trust had a show called ‘Clocks and Stools’. They gave us old clocks to work with. This was around 2008. I also once saw Kamicha, a fellow artist burn a stool and I noticed that where the nails were stuck in, a pimpled effect emerged. That fascinated me and influenced the piece I ended up making.


JK: Was the progression into sculpture making much easier after that?


DM: No actually. It took a while before I did another sculpture. I tried making one much later as a way to relieve stress and it ended up being bought. This sort of encouraged me to slowly keep doing more. I was still painting though but after a while I started enjoying sculpting more and with time I was deeply immersed. Painting sort of took a back seat.


JK: Lets talk about printmaking which is how a lot of people relate to your work. The ‘matatus’ specifically.


DM: So a few years back Peterson Kamwathi had a woodcut printmaking workshop. That was the first time I ever did a matatu print. But even before I had decided to focus on matatus I was already very much influenced by them. I had a camera back then in 2010 & I used to go round taking pictures of matatus. I didn’t even know where I was going to use these pictures but I kept them. I would eventually start doing serious printing in 2013. I enjoyed the process so much that I even set up a workshop at home but the fumes from the paints was overbearing. Also, I got used to making small prints because when I learnt the process we did not have a large printing press. I had to learn to press with my hands and this would sometimes end up being such a work out.


JK: Lets backtrack a lil bit. Why the initial fascination with Matatus?


DM: I was born next to a stage. (Laughs).


JK: Really?


DM: Yes. Near a bus park somewhere in Naivasha. I grew up seeing these matatu touts and drivers everywhere going about their business and as child all this was very interesting. The agility they possessed while jumping in and out, the crazy driving skills, the hanging on the doors…it was all very acrobatic and so these guys became the first performers in my eyes. I’d come to Nairobi to visit family and I’d find the matatus here very different from those back home in Naivasha. I loved travelling in them. The music, the chaos…everything. This was during my high school years. It was the height of the Manyanga era.


JK: What does Manyanga mean?


DM: A manyanga is a pimped matatu. That was the popular term used back then. One could also call it Nganya, mboko…and other names derived from sheng. Manyanga is actually a traditional musical instrument that makes a high pitched noise when shaken. The matatus used alot of tutors to play music as part of their surround speakers. Hence the origin of the word.


JK: Ah…I didn’t know that.


DM: LA (Langata) had some of the best matatus. That’s also where I lived at the time. Names like Street Legal, Junior Mafia, Street Justice…these were some of the matatus that were happening back then. I would choose which matatu to travel in based on its coolness.


JK: Eish. That was most of us at the time. Your credibility depended on which matatus you boarded.


DM: Exactly. In college the mayhem now escalated. Back then Buruburu estate had the best matatus. I remember an incident involving this one matatu called Drama. People came rushing towards it and I actually thought there was a riot happening. Turns out that people just wanted to get into the matatu because it was one of the coolest at the time. The process of pimping a matatu is heavily influenced by popular culture with things such as music, football fanaticism & celebrities both local and foreign taking centre stage.


JK: Was there a sense of freedom would you say? I know I felt it whenever I rode in one. The speed and carelessness exhibited was such an addictive high. It was a rebellious act that we enjoyed and relished.


DM: Yea. Matatus were these social spaces to be somebody cool. The girls hang out there, the cool kids…as a young person that was the highlight of ones life. Later, Michuki came with his rules and ruined everything. Riding in a matatu is not just about moving from point A to B. It’s immersing oneself in a moving theatre. It is performance. Everything from the language used, to the interaction between driver, tout and passengers. Matatus were and still are the distributors of sheng. The first time you’d hear a word of sheng back then was in a matatu. The first time you’d hear a new song or watch a new music video was in a matatu. Young boys especially would drop out of school to become touts.


JK: I remember back then being a tout, a matatu driver or even having these guys as your friends was frowned upon. It was embarrassing.


DM: Nowadays it’s an okay career choice because there is also a lot of money involved in the matatu business. We even have the Kamagera’s. It’s coined from a Kikuyu word meaning to go get them. These are the random guys chilling in almost every stage who are not employed by the car owner. Their job is to relive the driver or tout of any matatu that plies that route by taking it say round the block or to the end of the street and back. It could also be someone learning how to drive or trying to get into the business. This process is also called squad as everyone has to wait their turn. It’s just a way to make a little extra cash but it’s also a process where one gets promoted from kamagera, to tout, to driver, to owner.


JK: Which part of Nairobi now do you think has the best matatus?


DM: Rongai. I also live those sides. (Laughs)


JK: Of course. So, tell us about what you’ve been working on and what you’re choosing to show for this exhibition.


DM: It’s a select picking of work I’ve been creating for the last few years. I’ve never had a solo show with my sculptures so this will be a good introduction. There is a separation from people who don’t know that I’m the same guy who does the matatus. But it will also have the matatu prints and some video work.


JK: You mentioned a while back when we were talking about the physicality of the process and how you connect it to cycling.


DM: So the process begins before I even touch the material. I take pictures a lot…pictures of matatus, of people boarding matatus. In regards to physicality, I had to fashion my own roller due to the lack of a large press. I must have lost so much weight just printing. It’s a very physical process and for the sculptures, even more. I cycle to relax. I love that we’ve taken up cycling especially as artists here at Kuona, like you for example. It’s a physical but also mental process just like the making of art. I had dedicated two weeks to  cycling everyday before the work set in. This was to prepare myself so that the fatigue would not take a toll on my body. Afterwards I’d start working and sort of continue with the workout.


JK: I sometimes see students from Kenyatta University working in your studio under your tutelage. Is mentoring young emerging artists something you always thought about? Could you also comment about the sad state of the arts education here in Kenya and how western influences have corroded the discourse?


DM: When in school we didn’t always come across interesting ways of learning. We’d do odd jobs not even related to art just to survive. I don’t teach. I guide. If somebody wants to learn, I tell them to look at what everyone else is doing and be free to choose what area they want o focus on. The sad thing with school is that some of these teachers lack adequate knowledge and do not understand the concept of studio practice but continually base their teachings on theories influenced by the west. It always feels like an insult when a white man decides what is African. To be an artist is to be inventive and innovative.


JK: It is an insult, period. So you ask, you experiment and you ‘fail’ but you end up learning something new?


DM: Exactly. And this is how most of us learnt . It has worked with a few artists like Aaron Boruya who now has his own studio at Kuona Trust after spending months working alongside me. But I still try to push them to learn even more from other people. This is also because somebody was once kind enough to teach me. Gakunju Kaigwa for example taught me how to use different tools and so I feel like I need to give back. Although I hate the word ‘giving back’. I feels like settling a debt. (Laughs).


JK: Who buys your work?


DM: Anyone who can afford it. I’m not responsible for every piece I’ve sold so sometimes I don’t know. Foreigners are the frequent buyers but we have Kenyans who buy art. Let’s not discount that. Actually my biggest sale to date in terms of pieces sold & money paid has been to a Kenyan.


JK: What/who influences your work?


DM: My favourite artist in college was Salvador Dali. My period with the surrealistic paintings is influenced by his work. This is also because I had no knowledge of anything or anybody else in the art world at the time. Right now though most of my influences are the artists around me. We have artists like Ngatia for his approach to material, Kamwathi for the woodcut printmaking process… internationally I admire Takashi Murakami. I like his way of working and how he can venture into both the commercial and gallery space. I’d love to do that and I’m actually working on some fabric designs inspired by local motifs. I’ve noticed we don’t have our own original Kenyan motifs but we have what is called an African print which is ridiculous. For example right now I’m wearing a shirt with an image of an american flag. Why? I think we have a lot of interesting things that are exciting and not entirely poverty oriented.


JK: So what would this motif be?


DM: The first will be the matatu motif . There is actually a shirt out already. I started working on this process myself but its too time consuming and expensive especially for commercial consumption so I outsource. I design and the ones that are out so far are from my woodcut prints.


JK: This leads to my last question. Any future plans? exhibitions, collaborations, projects?


DM: I like the spontaneity of not planning. But I’m always working. There are some collaborative projects on the way. I want to animate some of my sculptures because some already look like they’re on the verge of doing something.


JK: Is there anything else you’d like to say before we finish?


DM: Yes. I’d like to explain abit about what art is to me. You see man is an animal. He can survive on food and water. First, one eats to survive then after you’re fed, thats when you think of how good the food tastes. That’s when the art comes in. Art is anything that is not for your survival. When all these things are taken away…what remains is art. The rest of it is always art.


JK: So art is not a need?


DM: No its not. It’s the curious part that comes after the need. Thats what art is to me.


*An edited version of this interview was published in the exhibition catalogue*