ART OF SURVIVAL Exhibit
“Making it out of the streets has made me a role model to many street children hoping for a better future.
I know there are some out there with even better talent than myself."
At a strategic corner of South C estate in Nairobi--bustling with high vehicle and human traffic is Deno’s open air studio that doubles as a tire repair shop. It is here that Deno is found repairing cars or selling tires in between painting and selling his art work. He is obviously a good business person yet a true artist at the core, with exceptional skills in soap stone carving/sculpturing, bead work, drawing, carpentry and water based as well as acrylic painting. It is therefore no surprise when asked what art means to him, he replies without hesitation, “I’ve been an artist all my life. Art is my work. I do it every day and I love doing it… art is everything to me.”
“I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. In school I would use a stick to draw on my leg, use my pen on my books or use chalk to draw on the board when the class was on break. I drew everywhere and all the time. In time my teachers noticed this talent and used to have me reproduce biology, geography and other subject diagrams on the black board for the lessons. It is a natural talent. It is who I am. But I got serious about art when I realized that I could make my living from it.
Things have not always been rosy though, as he explains, “I was born and spent the first few years of my life in Kitale (a town in Western Kenya.) My father died when I was so young that I do not remember what he looked like. I do not remember seeing him but later learnt that he was a renowned lumber jack. He was called upon to fell and shape trees by builders and carpenters. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, my mum relocated us to Kisii (a town in Nyanza Region, Kenya). She left me with my grandmother. She looked after and paid my school fees from her small business. Almost every week I would be sent back home for non-payment. Also, I was unhappy because from people’s comments I came to understand that where we lived was not my home so I dropped out of high school and decided to look for my father’s home.
This unhappiness led him down a dark path, “I ended up living in the streets of Kisii for about four years. With other street children we ate from garbage bins and slept in the cold, covering ourselves with gunny bags. It was a black season.
Thankfully we were helped by a project seeking to educate young street children, but he was already a teenager. “I was too old to go back to primary school so they organized for me to be mentored in soap stone carving. They thought I would need a year but I mastered it in three months. When I reached 18 years old, I was asked to remain at the home and look after the younger children. While there I continued with the carving, selling my pieces to tourist shops in nearby towns. This helped me earn money for my basic needs.
Determined to succeed, he reinvented his art, learning as he went. “Because I wanted to serve all types of clients, I thought to get into painting. I had not painted before but I got someone to teach me the basics of how to use the paints. I learnt much by observing how he mixed the paints. I also saw and learnt about art on canvas for the first time. I learnt from him how to prime the canvas which I at first did not know was different from other fabrics. So when I was ready to start, I bought some fabric that I felt was also fine to use and started painting using silk paints. I was very encouraged because from day one almost all pieces were bought. However after some time, I was advised by some clients to change to canvas and use acrylic paints. I took their advice and the response has been very good. However I know that I still have much to learn to perfect my art. It is a continuous growth process.“